Years ago, I worked with a principal who deeply believes he can develop the leader in everyone—in his staff, in his students, in his own children; everyone, he believes, has leadership potential. Daniel, we’ll call him, is a quintessential leader. He walks into a room and immediately owns it, with his broad smile, inclusive handshakes, and warm, genuine interest. But I think a better term for Daniel is gardener: He carefully plants seeds, provides plenty of sunshine and water, and nurtures their growth. This is what makes Daniel special. Nurturing the leader in others, coaching them to realize their potential, he makes deep connections through his relational disposition, and motivates others to find and nourish their own passions.
Coaches v. Leaders
While there is not one single definition of “leader” that we all agree on, most share certain ideologies and terms. Leaders are visionary, motivational, and decisive; leaders create optimal conditions wherein others can work productively and purposefully; leaders remove barriers and obstacles; leaders care for and manage their team; they unite and inspire; they push and strategize; they take responsibility and hold others accountable. Steward leadership, or servant leadership, is when leaders see themselves as beholden to their team, not lording over them; leaders who tend to the conditions within which their people can thrive; leaders who model a growth mindset and support productive struggle.
Coaches also tend to the conditions wherein others can thrive. They act as thought partners, riding shotgun on another’s learning journey. They ask questions to help their partner identify their goals and set a course of action; they pause before obstacles and clear the window so their partner can avoid the hazard; they restate the partner’s observations to let the learning sink in. Coaches are by definition relational; purposeless without a partner to scaffold, they themselves thrive when supporting others. They connect, flex to meet their partner’s needs, and create safe spaces wherein a professional can feel free to learn, experiment, take risks for the sake of growth, and reflect on their experiences.
I have come to understand coaching and leading as two sides of the same coin. Both coaching and leading require a person to be supportive, flexible, and inclusive in their relationships with others. And while leaders create a mission or vision for their organization, a coach keeps such centered; while a leader makes decisions, a coach clarifies such. A leader can help solve problems once a coach has surfaced them; a leader can implement ideas once a coach helps generate them; and a leader can manage organizational change and conflict better when a coach helps the individuals within that organization process the change or conflict.
School leaders who embody the Venn Diagram between coaching and leading, who can pivot easily from one side to the other, are more successful because they employ the essential actions of pausing, paraphrasing, posing questions, and listening strategically while also being relational, supportive, flexible, and inclusive. Coaching leaders value collaboration, and create systems that support such for both the teachers and the students in their schools. Coaching leaders are playing what James Carse termed an “infinite game” (later popularized by Simon Sinek); that is, they focus less on what happened and more on what can happen. They view mistakes or failures as learning opportunities, reflect and reassess, and keep pushing forward. This is growth mindset at work. Coaching leaders view their school as a learning organization, an inclusive space wherein all stakeholders, adults and children, are valued as lifelong learners whose growth matters.
School leaders who focus on coaching their teachers reap the benefits, in a more positive school climate, in greater teacher retention, and most importantly in greater student growth and achievement. According to a Wallace Foundation Report from 2021, there is conclusive evidence that a principal’s “time spent on coaching teachers is associated with higher student achievement growth,” and that “student achievement is higher in schools in which principals ensure that professional learning opportunities for teachers align with school goals.”
In short, school leaders who see themselves as coaching leaders center learning and growth at the heart of every decision they make. They provide responsive and actionable feedback to teachers based in data; they build trusting relationships with their stakeholders and empower their teachers and students to take risks for the sake of growth; and, they harness human and material resources to strategically address and accomplish their goals.