Why ask?

As leaders we can often feel like we need to provide answers and give good advice.   Using our experience and skills in this way provides value added for the organisation, and to a certain extent helps us to feel good about ourselves as we feel useful, important and impactful.

The down side can be that this leads to feelings of being overwhelmed.   People may become dependant on us and we become the bottleneck in getting things done.

At the core of this is a philosophical discussion about how we perceive ourselves as a leader, and what we see as our primary role. If we see our role as task orientated, and therefore about others performing tasks for us, this can lead to a ‘command and control’ leadership style where ‘if only people would do exactly as I tell them we would be amazingly successful!’ attitude may prevail. This tends to be good for our self-esteem and ego, but, unless people working for us are performing very basic tasks, doesn’t get results. People tend to tell us what we want to hear in this scenario, and the reality is often not as we think it is. Making decisions in this false reality is difficult and can often lead to poor outcomes.

If on the other hand we see ourselves as primarily about developing others, increasing learning and reflection, whilst insisting that others take responsibility for their own ideas and thoughts, then we are far more likely to be successful. In this scenario we tend to know what is going on, we can holds others to account more successfully and challenge people to a much higher degree.

This requires high trust and high levels of rapport whilst not colluding or sympathising with those we are leading.

Creating a coaching leadership style

The best way to achieve growth is through listening and asking questions. Sounds straightforward but this can actually be difficult to achieve, not because it is difficult to have a toolkit of excellent questions, but because it is often difficult to stop giving advice.

“Ask more questions, give less advice” – Michael Bungay Stanier

The core aims of a coaching leadership style are to:

  • Raise awareness (change happens often by just raising awareness)
  • Keep responsibility with the person we are leading
  • Make the person we are leading think hard
  • Increase performance

There is a belief when a leader uses a coaching style, that the person we are leading will perform their idea better, than our better idea.


Some questions you could use:

  • What is on your mind?
  • What is the real challenge here?
  • What have you tried so far?
  • When it did go right, what was happening?
  • What could you do? What else? What else? What else? What else?
  • What needs to change in our systems?
  • Describe to me what this looks like when it is going really well?
  • If I asked your colleagues, what change would they have noticed?
  • What could you do to make this more exciting for you?
  • Who do you need to go to for help with this?
  • What is stopping you from doing that?
  • What do you need to do to move this forward?
  • How does this tie in with the organisations aims / values?
  • If a customer were sat with us, what would they say?
  • Tell me more about that?
  • What obstacles do you think you might encounter?
  • When will you do this by?

People usually move through a set pattern of growth, from dependent (child) to independent (teenager) to inter-dependent (adult) and this is the route we as leaders seek to move people along in order to produce high performing teams.

Leaders with a coaching leadership style can insist on this progression and set high standards for how people interact together. Coaching is highly effective at moving people to inter-dependency and then motivating people at that stage of growth.


At this stage in development, the people we are leading take no responsibility and have no freedom.   It is a child like state that often new starters have for a short period of time whilst they find there feet. A command and control, autocratic leader can impose this state on the people they are leading by limiting decision making capability requiring people to ask before they take action.

Alternatively some people put themselves into a dependency position, wanting leaders to make the decisions for them and therefore take responsibility as well. If it goes wrong it is the leaders fault; after all it was their idea.

People who are new to the organisation or new to role need to be allowed to be dependent for a while whilst they take their first baby steps, but everyone else, needs to take responsibility and not be given answers (even if that seems easier at the time!)


At this stage the people tend to take no or little responsibility, but want lots of freedom. This is a teenager state, often seen in people who want to work alone, separate to others, or who focus on their own achievements and not the achievements of the team.   If they are doing well and are successful then how the team is doing is not really important. This is the language of me, mine and I. People at this stage often do not want to be held to account, but much rather prefer to be left to it.   This can lead to extreme reactions if challenged, and a lack of sharing resources, especially their own work.

Perversely, poorly designed incentives can move or keep people in an independent stage. This happens if rewards are focused on individual performance instead of team performance. Another leadership challenge is if this person happens to be a very high performer, but due to their independence undermines the team, or refuses to fit into the culture and values of the team.

A leader using a coaching style resists this position, and seeks to see growth in the people they are leading by asking question that relate to the team and keeping accountably questions focused on the team and the organisation.


This stage is where teams perform, where independent people chose to work together in partnership. It is characterised by a shared responsibility and collective good. Here, the focus is on meaning and purpose. The language is of we, us and our. A coaching style has a significant impact on the team and allows for incredible creative ideas as everyone moves forward together.

Where would you put individuals who you lead in this model? What questions could you ask that will help move people forward into growth, learning and performance?


There is growing evidence that the most successful leadership style is coaching, and that there are generations of people who prefer this style of leadership. Coaching can unlock potential and release performance in ways that other leadership styles cannot, and often, do not pretend to want to achieve.

“You can mandate adequacy, but greatness has to be unleashed” – Joel Klein

What would be your next step forward to asking more questions?



“The Coaching Habit” – Michael Bungay Stanier

“The 7 Habits of Highly Effective people” – Stephen Covey

“Coaching for Performance” – Sir John Whitmore


Ian White is a leadership coach, trainer and mentor with over 15 years of senior leadership experience. Ian has offices in Leeds, UK, but works across the country and also internationally.