The Alchemy of Leading

Leading is Coaching

Around five years ago, a struggling division at a large IT company restructured to improve the effectiveness of sales and customer success programs. The new team-based design was carefully thought through, as was the selection of the leaders. While the newly appointed team leaders had some people management experience, all of them were new to cross-cultural, virtual leadership. However, this promising beginning was undermined by the division manager who didn’t believe that her role was to coach the new leaders. She was too busy “leading the division” in pursuit of sales targets, and she concluded that the quarterly leader development meeting would provide the training the newly appointed leaders needed. Unfortunately, the results were all too predictable. Twelve months later, the team leaders had little to show for their efforts. Sales were below target, engagement scores were low, and the division manager was considering another restructuring.

During the first decades of the 20th century, Scientific Management and Trait Theory—also referred to as the ‘Great Man Theory’—were at the center of leadership thinking. For much of the century, those models reinforced the notion that great leaders were born, identified, and appointed – not developed. Then, in the span of a couple of decades, the flattening of corporate hierarchies and technology-fueled globalization combined with the emergence of a new generation of employees. Those mega-trends caused many organizations to shift toward teams and teamwork as the driver of growth, innovation, and competitive advantage.

Today, large organizations need thousands of capable team leaders, and smaller companies (especially fast-growing startups) require a handful of highly competent ones—the Navy SEALs of the business world. The challenge is, a 20th-century approach to leader selection and training based on regurgitations of well-worn leadership clichés don’t work.

Today’s emerging leaders need and want coaches, not bosses who command the troops. They want to work with people who are passionate about helping them become effective leaders and coaches themselves.

Leading in 21st-century organizations means coaching people by giving them a framework of behaviors and opportunities for experiential learning, and then using technology—tools and metrics—to provide continuous, rigorous, and objective feedback.

The Alchemy of Leading

You won’t likely find the practices I’ve described above and summarized below (for people who like to skip to the end) in a leadership training course, textbook or article on ’15 Ways to Build a Great Team’. Despite that lack of press, these actions will help ensure you successfully transform aspiring leaders from ordinary to extraordinary.

  • Recognize people who make a habit of helping others do their best and be their best as they pursue a common goal. Power-driven narcissists may have their place, but do you want them leading your teams?
  • Promote people who are passionate about developing and sustaining healthy, trusting relationships. Leaders who learn to navigate people-dynamics effectively are more successful at increasing engagement, reducing risk, and inspiring peak performance.
  • Engage in continuous, experiential learning that combines tools, coaching, and metrics. Great leaders are forged over time, not born, and anointed.

As more and more organizations have come to rely on teams, the pressure to develop exceptional team leaders who inspire their teams to deliver growth, innovation, and competitive advantage is higher than ever. For those of you responsible for finding and forging the next generation of leaders, a little alchemy never hurts.


Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb Hurley is an accomplished executive and entrepreneur who is a leading expert on team dynamics and high-performance leadership. Jeb guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior to deliver better results and greater wellbeing. He is co-founder and CEO of Xmetryx, Inc., the creator of TrustMetryx software, and Co-founder and Managing Partner of Brainware Partners, a team dynamics consultancy. Jeb is a two-time author and holds a Doctorate in Organizational Leadership.

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  1. Very well structured, educational article that reflects the current trend.
    There is no doubt that a true leader, especially when it comes to team leaders, cares about “his own people”, knows them deeply, is present, helps them grow. The best team leaders focus on people’s strengths. They want to (really) help others succeed. They have patience, understanding and take advantage of every opportunity to help their team grow and develop. Even when they are wrong, they know that it takes time, other attempts and other errors to improve. Not only does it give stability and confidence, but it also offers the motivation that allows people to face the most demanding situations and look to the future with optimism and conviction. Showing hope is crucial.
    When it comes to coaching, however, it should be stressed that a leader can carry out this fundamental function if he has the necessary skills and is committed to discussing how to achieve a goal, provide constant feedback, offer support, do field training.
    In fact, coaching is effective only when expectations are communicated transparently and the manager is able to remove the worries, doubts and anxieties that limit the performance of collaborators and lead to poor results. To facilitate the achievement of the agreed objectives, there is also the ability of people to take responsibility and that of the manager to delegate, trust them and at the same time give a daily example of the values, vision and corporate mission, through their actions.