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5 Leader as Leadership Coach Fails to Avoid

You have a vision for developing your team. But as a leader, the more coaching you provide, the more likely two-edge issues will happen. No matter how hard you try, true coaching complicates the leader-follower relationship. Unhealthy leader-follower relationships have devastating impacts on business performance and results. Many businesses are trying to build coaching skills, but leadership habits take time to change. Maybe leaders don’t make good coaches. Does being a leader and leadership coach have to be that hard? The truth is it doesn’t. You can coach your team and have fantastic leader-follower relationships. How? By anticipating and avoiding what’s causing issues in the first place. Evidence suggests that most problems can be traced back to these five things.

Why Avoiding Leader as Coach Pitfalls Matter

Leadership is a relationship. A theme in leadership research is that high-quality trust-based leader-follower relationships enhance positive results for leaders, teams, and organizations. The documented benefits include:

  • Improved leader and follower performance

  • Enhanced follower job satisfaction

  • Increased leader and follower organizational commitment

  • Decreased employee turnover

  • Improved workplace climate

  • Better two-way communication

  • Improved creativity

  • Value-added collaboration

  • Decreased levels of workplace stress

In an increasingly complex workplace having leaders that can cope with uncertainty and build trust within their leader-follower relationships is a competitive advantage.

The benefits of investing in coaching are many; 80% of people who receive coaching report increased self-confidence. Over 70% benefit from improved work performance, relationships, and more effective communication skills. 86% of companies report that they recouped their investment in coaching and more.

5 Common Pitfalls to Avoid

Too often companies make narrow investments into leadership development with little to no results to show. Effective coaching relies on a partnership that goes beyond investing in leader as coach skill development.

Coaching is a partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. International Coaching Federation

Successful leaders anticipate and avoid the following five most common categories of leader as coach fails:

1. Expectations Ambiguity

Unclear expectations are a common challenge. Often workplace ambiguity results from a misunderstanding about what is coaching versus what is leading. Leaders will need to provide direction, but a coach avoids giving advice.

  • Tip: Establish a written definition that compares and contrasts leadership, coaching, and mentoring. When scheduling meetings for coaching make the purpose clear. If using another meeting time for coaching include a specific agenda item to draw a clear distinction between your coaching and leadership roles. If you are not using separate meetings for coaching (which is my preference) you might find the coaching conversation goes better when it is the first item on the agenda.

2. Conflicts of Interest

Leaders that use coaching to drive a personal agenda and put their personal needs ahead of their team members create a conflict of interest. Leaders often run from meeting to meeting and it can become very tempting to hijack a coaching session to cover an action item. If you find yourself falling into this trap, you are limiting your coaching effectiveness.

  • Tip: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Set clear boundaries upfront and invite team members to provide feedback if you step out of the leader as coach lane. Establishing and sticking to a transparent agenda will help you avoid any potential conflicts of interest when you are under pressure.

3. Lack of Trust

Trust is a fundamental aspect of high-quality relationships and an essential competency for a coach. Trust allows a coaching conversation to be open and without concern for being vulnerable. It is in this space that growth occurs best. A threat to trust is confidentiality within the leader-follower coaching relationship.

  • Tip: Establish a coaching agreement with clear definitions of what about the coaching is confidential and what is not. Consider the needs of both you as the coach and your follower as the coachee. The agreement should include how concerns about trust are shared and resolved.

4. Leadership Power

The role of the leader as a coach in hierarchical organizational culture is an especially challenging paradigm to establish. Coaching is most effective in collaborative relationships. The higher you go in an organization the more power you are given within the organization. When team members enter a meeting with expectations for the leader to be in charge and have all the answers it is difficult to adopt a mindset of collaboration.

  • Tip: Set expectations upfront for the leader as coach relationship to be collaborative. Make it explicit as a part of the coaching agreement. Include examples of what is and is not a collaborative coaching relationship. Focus on your coaching presence, active listening, and use of powerful questions during coaching sessions.

5. Forced Participation

Sometimes out of a desire for everyone to develop leaders and followers are forced to have coaching relationships. However, for coaching to be most effective participation needs to be desired. When a coach or coachee does not want to be coached the effectiveness of the investment is diminished.

  • Tip: Make participation voluntary for the coach and coachee. Even though you want everyone to be developing, you cannot force someone to learn and grow in a coaching relationship

What’s the biggest leader as coach challenge you face?

Key Summary Points

  • High-quality trust-based leader-follower relationships enhance positive results for leaders, teams, and organizations.

  • In an increasingly complex workplace having leaders that can cope with uncertainty and build trust within their leader-follower relationship is a competitive advantage.

  • The more leadership coaching you provide, the more likely two-edge issues will arise.

  • A successful leader as a leadership coach anticipates and avoids expectations ambiguity, conflicts of interest, lack of trust, leadership power, and forced participation.


Athanasopoulou, A., & Dopson, S. (2018). A systematic review of executive coaching outcomes: Is it the journey or the destination that matters most? The Leadership Quarterly. 29(1), 70-88.

Lai, Y., & Palmer, S. (2019). Psychology in executive coaching: An integrated literature review. Journal of Work Applied Management, 11(2), 143-164.

Milner, J., Milner, T., McCarthy, G., & da Motta Veiga, S. (2022). Leaders as Coaches: Towards a Code of Ethics. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science: A Publication of the NTL Institute, OnlineFirst, 1.

Trompenaars, A., & Voerman, E. (2010). Servant-leadership across cultures: Harnessing the strength of the world's most powerful management philosophy. McGraw-Hill.


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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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