February 17, 2018

Coach or Captain: Which Are You? | Leading from the Library

Leadership experts point to the importance of coaching others in the organization, but perhaps leaders can do more good in the role of captain, rather than coach.

For several years I participated in a regular lunchtime basketball game with a regular group of players. One of them earned the nickname “Coach,” thanks to his persistent habit of telling teammates how to play the game. “Cut to the basket faster!” or “Don’t you know when to box out that guy?” implored Coach, in an effort to spur his team on to victory. As is often the case with unwanted coaching, it usually had the opposite effect.

One day I was surprised when a teammate, after a game, said, “You did a good job out there coaching today.” Who, me? I might occasionally give my teammates encouragement, but I did my best to avoid telling anyone else how to play the game. Perhaps I was a bit too vocal that particular day and may have gone beyond encouragement into directing other players, but it’s not something to which I would readily admit. In response I said, “Oh, that was captaining, not coaching.” I hardly knew what I meant, but it sounded good. Perhaps my teammate was the one unclear about the difference between coaches and captains. Over the years I’ve tried to understand the two better, what role they play in leadership, and achieve clarity in my own thinking about why organizations need both and how we make the best use of them.

Best use of a leader’s time?

Just as there are differences between managers and leaders, there are differences between coaches and captains. A coach is there to help build up specific skill sets. Consider the case of a manager who is weak at delivering constructive criticism to staff. A management coach could certainly help the individual to improve in this area. Is that the responsibility of the leader? While a good leader should be able to recognize the problem and share it with a manager, I’m less certain it’s the role of the leader to start coaching their reports so they can improve. I routinely encounter leadership articles suggesting that’s exactly what leaders should do. Take this example:

World-class leaders understand that the only way to systematically improve individual performance is by giving constructive coaching.

I might not be a world-class leader. I could always read this book for more help. It may come down to how you help others learn to be good leaders, perhaps being more of a mentor than a coach. A captain leads by example and is willing to do what he or she asks others to do. Leaders should focus on moving the whole organization forward, as opposed to engaging individual employees in coaching sessions.

Rather be the captain

The role of captain appeals to me as a nice metaphor for what leaders need to accomplish in their organizations. It’s about more than telling others how to do their job; some would call that micromanaging. That’s exactly what “Coach” did and why the other players were less than enthusiastic to land on his team. It’s no fun getting constant but unwanted instruction and feedback. Being a captain means championing the cause and being the heart of the team. Taking responsibility when things go wrong, and acknowledging the hard work and smarts of others when they go right. Occasionally leaders, like good captains, cheer on their colleagues, encouraging them to do their best and urging them on to stretch their abilities and accomplish goals they might have thought were out of reach. Other times it means coming up with new ideas and inspiring others to support them or in some way become involved in bringing them to fruition—or encouraging ideas from others and championing them.

What coaches do

Integrating some coaching into your leadership may be necessary at times. Doing it well makes all the difference. Given the ease with which coaching can cross over to micromanaging, it is perhaps best left to other specialists. Leadership or management development programs provide an appropriate setting for any aspiring leader to receive coaching that will elevate skills. Coaching is important, but my preference as a leader is to emphasize my role as a captain. That doesn’t mean you ignore or eliminate the responsibility for professional development or any type of specific skill training. Making sure the workforce has all the skills it needs is part of the leader’s responsibility. As leaders, the key thing might be knowing ourselves and our strengths well enough to know if we should do the coaching, invite someone else to do it, or look for entirely different solutions.

As always, find balance

Learning about leadership means exploring the many dimensions of what it means to lead. In his “What Makes a Good Leader” post at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Rob Jenkins shares his list of the qualities of a good higher education leader—a dean, provost, or president. The list was long, and readers shared more than a dozen other characteristics of good leaders they knew. Despite all those listed, I saw nothing about coaching or captaining. With potential followers expecting their leaders to demonstrate so many desirable qualities, everything from honesty, trustworthiness, and listening to toughness, humility, and risk-taking, with expectations so high, how is it possible for any one person to encompass it all?

I think leaders who are always learning know they can’t do it all, but if they work on maintaining their strengths and building on their weaknesses—and they look to build up their repertoire of leadership abilities—they will succeed in spite of the impossibility of mastering all the skills that we collectively believe make our leaders good. Because they lack all the necessary skills, confident leaders know when to look outside and enlist specialized help. In search of an answer, perhaps it brings us back to leadership styles and achieving balance. There’s coaching and captaining. Just as with learning styles, we use them all, but each of us may have a dominant style. My leadership style preferences may bring out the captain in me, but in a given situation I might find myself having to do more coaching. The next time someone compliments me on my coaching, I might just say, “Thanks.”

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Deborah Williams says:

    This is a great article. Thank you for your concluding statement: “As leaders, the key thing might be knowing ourselves and our strengths well enough to know if we should do the coaching, invite someone else to do it, or look for entirely different solutions.” I think encouraging others to “lead” in various tasks is a means for professional development to take place. The caveat is to have an environment where this is encouraged. All too often the environment or organizational culture just doesn’t allow this to happen.