top of page
  • Writer's pictureDr Pete Stebbins PhD

Building Advisory Relationships: Leading '​In The Zone'​!

The Disaster Unfolds...

Bob’s lengthy career as a Principal and his deeply held values about leadership and serving others were almost destroyed by a series of all too common events and misunderstandings...

We were in the midst of a series of executive coaching sessions - Bob was on leave with pay pending the results of an investigation into complaints made about his leadership style… After sitting in my office and re-reading the investigation report,  Bob was shaking uncontrollably - reduced to tears...

“I can’t believe this is happening to me again!!! I just don’t get it!!! Several years ago I was accused of being a bully and micro-manager by the Deputy Principal at my previous school. She accused me of being excessive in my supervision and monitoring and critical with my feedback. I was only double checking her work at her request as she was in the midst of a messy divorce and having a nervous breakdown. Then I reduced her workload because she was so stressed, however she later accused me of constructive dismissal because I removed areas of work responsibility from her and gave her some much simpler tasks - all things she thanked me for at the time!

I couldn’t believe the complaint was upheld when I was simply trying to provide additional help because she was in the midst of such a major personal crisis and had refused to take time off.

They sent me away to a leadership course where I was told that I needed to stop being a 'manager' and start being a 'leader'. I was told 'a manager controls people whilst a leader empowers people'. I was told I needed to stop giving people direction and instead ask them questions and get them to solve their own problems. I was told that I needed to learn coaching skills - so I did their course and have strictly followed the guidelines ever since I started in my current school. 

Now, despite taking the complete opposite approach to my leadership, I am again accused of bullying except this time I am told I have set impossible targets and objectives - when I was simply setting an inspirational vision for us to be the best school in world! Even worse I have been accused of deliberately withholding information from my staff - all because I kept asking them questions and encouraged them to look for better solutions (than the ideas they had already come up with) to the problems we faced.”

The Dangerous Myth of Manager vs Leader...

Poor Bob! His career as a Principal was a train wreck which was tragic in light of the fact that he was a very caring guy, a very experienced and capable school leader, AND he was quite knowledgeable about contemporary theories on leadership. However in pursuing his interest in leadership development Bob had been sold a lie - but not just some little white lie which had very little impact in the real world - Bob had bought into one of the biggest and most damaging leadership lies there is - one that countless gurus and consultants sprout out willingly and gleefully at every opportunity. We call it ‘The Myth of Manager vs. Leader’.

In ‘The Myth of Manager vs Leader’, so called experts tell us that 'managing is bad and leading is good’ OR ‘managers use people but leaders empower people’ or many other variations. It is easy to understand how this misunderstanding was created. By taking literally the following inspirational quotes (which were probably not intended to be objective statements of scientific fact) the 'leadership experts' Bob was listening to set him up on a collision course with his subsequent destruction.

5 Famous Quotes Which Feed The Dangerous Myth of Manager vs. Leader

1.     “Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing.” ~ Tom Peters

2.    “Leadership should be more participative than directive, more enabling than performing.” ~ Mary D. Poole

3.    “Don't tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” ~ George S. Patton Jr.

4.    “Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.” ~ Peter Drucker

5.    “You manage things; you lead people.” ~ Grace Hopper

From a behavioural perspective, the notion that Managing is always bad and Leading is always good is simply untrue! Even worse is the idea that Managing and Leading are somehow categorically different activities - it just ain’t so! 

Firstly, managing and leading are not separate categories of activity. As a behavioural psychologist I know that Managing is simply one form of leadership behaviour (with Managing defined as providing clear instruction and direction towards a specific solution) the other two forms of leadership behaviour are Mentoring (defined as providing suggestions and options to co-construct a solution) and Coaching (defined as asking effective questions to enable self-generated solutions). 

Secondly, if Managing is apparently ‘bad’ then it must be that Coaching or Mentoring is somehow ‘good’ as 'Leadership' is the umbrella term for all of these behaviours and not a specific behaviour itself. But is it true that Managing is 'bad' and Mentoring and/or Coaching is 'good'? Nope - not necessarily! It all depends on: (1) the quality and (2) the timing and context.

The Quality: As with any form of communication, each approach of managing/ mentoring/ coaching could be done well or done poorly. Thus, the quality of a leader's skill becomes important. When it comes to managing – giving instruction or direction – if this was done poorly than you could easily be perceived as being a ‘Micro-Manager’ but if it was done well you would more likely be perceived as being an ‘Effective Instructor’. The same applies for mentoring and coaching. In high quality mentoring you come across as being the ‘Wise Old Owl’ whilst low quality mentoring creates the tall poppy syndrome response of FIGJAM (F*#k I’m Good – Just Ask Me!). Coaching also has the same risks – low quality questioning simply makes you look like ‘Good Cop / Bad Cop’ whilst high quality questioning carries the air of ‘Curious Listener.’ (We’ll unpack this in more detail in Part 2).

Observe due measure, for right timing in all things is the most important factor. Hesiod 800BC

The Timing AND Context: The approaches of managing/ mentoring/ coaching differ in the level of directness and thus can easily be distinguished along a continuum from highly directive at one end to non-directive at the other end. Selecting which approach to use depends on both timing and context.

Firstly, with regard to timing, your approach depends on the timing of the support given within the overall learning cycle. For example, where the support is occurring early in the learning cycle – greater direction may need to be given if people become distressed and/or ‘stuck’ in the learning process. Alternatively less direction is needed later in the learning cycle as people’s mastery increases as does their ability to problem solve with fewer prompts.

Secondly, with regard to context, your approach also depends on the risk management required in relation to the topic at hand. For example if the issue is ‘mission critical’ and has school wide implications then taking a conservative view and increasing the level of direction would be prudent (all the while openly acknowledging this to the people you are leading) whilst issues which do not have an serious and/or wider implications may not require such a high level of direction.

Returning To The Story...

Unfortunately for Bob, when it came to the matters of (1) quality and (2) timing and context, he had buggered up on both fronts... When it came to the quality of his different leadership approaches no one had ever clarified the difference between high and low quality approaches to managing, mentoring and coaching. Nor had anyone ever explained the matter of timing and the various different contexts which needed to be considered for each approach.

A Coach who doesn't do much 'coaching'...

After I had given Bob some much needed perspective on his self-worth and positive attributes as a school leader as well as some very clear direction (and correction) about the quality, timing and context of various leadership approaches he paused to reflect...

Then he said "But Pete one thing I still don’t get - if the definitions of managing, mentoring and coaching are as you say - how is it you are called a ‘Coach’? Based on my observations you seem to spend most of your time using a managing and mentoring approach - providing me with explicit direction and/or suggesting various options I could take to certain problems… Come to think of it you rarely use the coaching questions I was trained to use in my course - yet I have grown so much in such a short space of time and become so much more aware of my leadership - both the good and bad aspects - and more confident I can change for the better! So tell me what is it exactly that you do?"

I replied, “Well, to make a long story as short as possible, my job title is ‘Coach’ just like yours is ‘Principal’ and others have the title ‘Manager’, ‘Supervisor’, ‘Director’ etc. but these are merely job titles - nouns or descriptors as it were. It’s the verbs that count - the doing words that describe the leadership behaviours we engage in to get our jobs done that are more useful to understand. job title is ‘Coach’ just like yours is ‘Principal’ and others have the title ‘Manager’, ‘Supervisor’, ‘Director’ etc. but these are merely job titles - nouns or descriptors as it were. It’s the verbs that count - the doing words that describe the leadership behaviours we engage in...

You see my original training was in clinical psychology where we learned from the research that active/directive approaches were far more helpful than passive/non-directive approaches to help people struggling with common psychological problems. It is pretty obvious that people who are suffering and seeking help clearly need more than just reflective questions - what they need is to be able to have a supportive conversation with an expert - a trusted advisor - who will guide them with both the directions and suggestions needed to get their recovery back on track! And as their recovery progressed, the extent of my direction reduced and by the time they were discharged I was much more non-directive as they were much more self-directive and almost fully recovered! 

After my work shifted toward executive coaching I initially took the same 'coaching' approach you were trained to do - asking a lot of reflective questions to help people discover their own answers - and whilst this was helpful for really high functioning leaders with minor problems this was not helpful at all for the majority of executives who had much more complex leadership problems to deal with. In such circumstances where the problems were within the scope of my expertise I had to mix my use of coaching techniques with other more direct advice giving and suggestion - because simply leaving them guessing when they clearly didn’t know what to do next was in my opinion unethical at the very least. 

Bob interjected - "But Pete I thought if you told someone the answer and they didn’t learn for themselves then they would not grow and would become dependent on you as a leader...?"

I continued... "generally speaking Bob - this is simply not true - provided you match the level of directness of your leadership approach with their level of challenge each time! When you don’t adjust your leadership approach to their level of challenge you make one of two possible serious mistakes:

Firstly you may over compensate by providing too much direction, inadvertently making them dependent upon you which they may appreciate in the short-term but ultimately resent in the long-term. I suspect this may have been part of the problem in you created which led to your first bullying complaint.

Alternatively you may under-compensate by not providing enough direction, inadvertently making them anxious, uncertain about their own capability and even suspicious that you may be withholding information from them. I think you may have accidentally created this type of problem in your more recent bullying complaint.

So, in my job titled ‘Coach’ what I seek to do is NOT spend my time in an exclusively coaching focused relationship with you BUT RATHER develop an Advisory Relationship with you - where you interact with me as a 'Trusted Advisor'. An Advisory Relationship is simply a working relationship where I ‘right size’ the mix of managing, mentoring and coaching approaches I use according to your needs at any given time. As you’re dealing with some pretty major crises right now, which I’ve had a lot of experience with, I am working in a much more directive/managing approach as you rightly point out but this will shift towards a much less directive/coaching approach as you get on top of things and move forwards in your leadership development and growth.

An Advisory Relationship is simply a working relationship where I ‘right size’ the mix of managing, mentoring and coaching approaches I use according to your needs at any given time.

Leading In The Zone of Proximal Development

In educational leadership the work of Lev Vygotsky may be worth revisiting - in particular the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development and the idea of Scaffolding - namely the teacher must adjust the amount of scaffolding needed to keep the student ‘in the zone’ of learning - too much scaffolding and the lesson is too easy and boring - too little scaffolding and the lesson is too difficult and anxiety provoking. Thus the focus of your Leadership as a School Principal is to 'lead within the zone' - building powerful advisory relationships where you match your leadership approach (AKA Scaffolding) with the needs of your staff.

So Bob, to bring this together, remember that the key to your success as a school leader moving forwards from here will be about three things:

1.   Understanding there is no universally good or bad distinction between the leadership behaviours of Managing, Mentoring or Coaching as each one is useful for a different reason and each one can be done well or done poorly - it depends on the quality of your leadership skills - something you can learn and develop.

2.   Managing, Mentoring and Coaching are descriptors of three different types of leadership behaviours which sit on a continuum from active directive at one end to passive non-directive at the other - the choice of which approach to take depends on the timing and context of the issues in focus. 

3.   Your goal as an effective leader is to 'right-size' your leadership and lead within the zone of proximal development - to build Advisory Relationships with your staff - to become a 'Trusted Advisor' - where you match the directness of your approach with the level of challenge they are facing - always adjusting your mix of skills from the managing/ mentoring/ coaching continuum in real-time to match their needs in order to support their individual growth whilst achieving the wider organisation's goals and objectives."

As Bob sat and listened he stopped shaking and calmness began to settle upon him. Then as this initial conversation concluded a wise smile rested upon Bob's face. The penny had dropped! And the motivation was building inside him to rise to challenges that lay ahead!

Dr Pete Stebbins PhD

12 views0 comments


bottom of page