9 reasons why servant leaders make the best executive coaches
In the half-century since Robert K. Greenleaf wrote “The Servant as Leader,” servant leadership has steadily replaced more traditional, authoritarian styles across the business world.
Servant leaders who, as Cindy Mascheroni explains, “put purpose over profit” have proven highly effective not only in building connections with their teams but also in driving exceptional outcomes for their companies.
As important as servant leadership skills are to executive success, however, they needn’t be reserved for the C-suite. In fact, the same characteristics that have helped many CEOs, entrepreneurs, and managers develop careers in business will pack as much power, if not more, when transitioning to a profession as an executive coach.
Below, we investigate why.
But first, what is servant leadership?
Chris and Ana Quinn offer deep insights into the topics of servant leadership and executive coaching. Together they founded Imprint Talent Readiness nearly two decades ago to help identify and inspire every employee’s full potential.
They also serve as Co-Chairs of nine Vistage peer advisory groups, devoting themselves to developing leaders from early-career managers to the corner office.
Servant leadership plays a big part in the perspectives they strive to instill in their clients and Vistage members, as well as how they operate as executive coaches. So what does servant leadership mean to them?
Chris explains it in the simplest terms: “Servant leadership is just put others first.”
Or as Ana elaborates, “You’re serving others, not yourself. You’re doing what’s needed to support them and their goals and their mission. You’re at their disposal.”
Focusing on others’ needs ahead of one’s own has a transformative impact on the coaching relationship.
“Being a servant leader means you let go of outcomes other than, did we serve the member well? Did they get some self-insight or self-realization or something that they were able to talk through? That’s the key,” Chris says.
The servant-leader vantage point so profoundly shapes how an executive coach collaborates with clients for many reasons, among them because:
1. Servant leaders view others as a gift
At a fundamental level, coaching is an interaction between people. Servant leadership, says Ana, is important in framing these engagements.
“You need to come to the table when you’re meeting with someone with the mindset that everybody’s a gift,” she says.
In her view, this accepting and open stance helps a coach “understand where they’re coming from or what challenges they’re facing.” And this, in turn, facilitates discovery, the ultimate goal of coaching.
2. Servant leaders leave their egos behind
According to Chris, servant leadership “makes you more humble. It makes you realize that the answer has to come from the person.” It’s the client who is on the path of growth.
As a servant leader in a coaching role, “you don’t think you’re the Oracle of Delphi.” Although he admits that there are times when a coach must offer strong guidance. In those moments, he says, “you can’t be the pontificator spewing forth wisdom.”
For Chris, this is what separates coaching from consulting. “When you’re a consultant, you definitely have a hypothesis that you’re trying to sell the client on,” he says.
“They engage with you because you have some knowledge that they think they don’t have.” On the other hand, one works with a coach because they’re “someone who can unlock the talent that you have, the gifts that you have.” As C.S. Lewis, said, “It is not to think less of yourself but to think of yourself less.”
3. Servant leaders ask questions
If the coach isn’t handing out advice, what are they doing for an hour? Asking questions.
“Servant leadership is not always about giving all the answers. It’s about having conversations and, together, coming up with solutions,” says Ana. When coaching from a place of service, “you’re facilitating the process of problem-solving, of listening to different perspectives.”
The skill, she says, is “knowing what questions will drive toward the solution.”
Chris is careful, though, to “not ask questions as if you have a checklist.” He prefers to allow coaching conversations to go in unexpected-yet-enlightening directions as he and a client interrogate a situation in tandem.
4. Servant leaders care about the client’s response
The focus on asking good questions leads quickly to another key trait of servant leaders — active listening. Coaches and servant leaders must care about the answers that emerge in coaching discussions.
That often means holding back on the chatter. “If you’re doing all the talking,” says Ana, “you’ll never know where they’re coming from or what their challenges are.”
5. Servant leaders don’t steal ownership
The idea that coaching isn’t really about the coach arises again and again from these two Vistage Chairs. “This isn’t my session,” Chris frequently tells clients. “This is yours.”
In this way, he offers up each encounter as an opportunity for the individual he’s coaching to set the agenda. But that doesn’t mean standing by idly.
To ensure the interaction delivers value, he urges clients to get away from anything “too surface-y.” Instead, he encourages them to explore what they’re “muddled about.”
6. Servant leaders cede control
“I have to let go of outcomes,” Chris opines, “because if I have a goal for a coaching session, I’m going to drive toward that, and I may truncate something important and miss an opportunity to go even deeper.”
Many former high-powered executives who enter the coaching profession may not at first trust the process to the same degree, and Chris empathizes with them.
“That was hard for me at first because I’m very control-oriented. I want to know how things are going to happen.” But he realizes now that as a coach, “You’ve got to let go.”
7. Servant leaders are willing to push
Another hard truth of coaching, you can’t be in it for the immediate kudos. While it may be easier to play nice and pat clients on the back, Chris says that isn’t a coach’s job.
“A good coach is not there to make somebody comfortable. A good coach is there to provoke them into thinking about things differently or maybe pushing through obstacles.”
He compares the role to that of a personal trainer who has to push clients in the gym so they progress. Sometimes an executive coach must be willing to make a client emotionally sore — and know there will be some under-the-breath muttering — in order to fulfill the mission “to make them exceed their own expectations and overcome those self-limiting beliefs.”
8. Servant leaders develop other servant leaders
Both Ana and Chris believe that servant leadership helps them expand their impact.
“We’re trying to set the example and we’re trying to guide,” says Ana, who hopes that clients then emulate the leadership style within their own organizations. “They take the tools, the mindsets, the perspectives and, in turn, teach those they’re responsible to serve.”
“If you think it has value for you,” Chris says of servant leadership, “why wouldn’t you share it and let it cascade through your team?”
9. Or maybe for servant leaders, it’s all a matter of motivation
There are many ways a servant leadership mindset can improve executive coaching experiences and outcomes, but the real reason why servant leaders make the best executive coaches may boil down to one thing: motivation.
As Ana says, to excel as a coach, “You need to love what you’re doing and to really come at this with the perspective of wanting to help others and to make an impact in their lives. If you want to make a difference, truly contribute and give back, then this role is excellent.”
And that statement right there from a talented and insightful executive coach is the epitome of servant leadership.