Coach, Counsel, Mentor. Every leader uses these developmental methods...or do they? These principal methods are the cornerstone of leadership development used by all the military services. However, we are only trained to implement two of them. This is a problem because, in the military, we grow our own leaders. Every senior leader starts at the entry-level of the organization as a junior service member. Our own success as leaders will be in large part the result of the leaders who develop us along the way; leaders that understand their legacy lies not only in the leaders they develop but in the leaders that those leaders develop as well. Edgar Schein writes that every interaction we have has a positive or negative impact on the culture of the organization. Similarly, every interaction we have as a leader developer echoes throughout the generations that follow us. This is a generational approach to leader development. Given these challenges, the purpose of this article is to distinguish coaching from counseling and mentoring, recommend organizational adoption of the EAGLE Leader Development and Performance Coaching Model and associated training, and inspire you to put coaching into practice within your organizations.
The U.S. military commits massive amounts of resources to the development of its leaders. How individual services develop subordinates vary, but there is still a need for improvement. For example, the “Develops Others” category in the final report from the 2013 Chief of Staff of the Army Leader Development Task Force continues to be the lowest-rated leader competency across all career levels. Below are some additional highlights from the report.
59% of Army leaders are rated effective at developing their subordinates, while only 45% are rated effective at creating or identifying opportunities for leader development.
19% of Army leaders report they “never” receive counseling from their immediate superior. 49% report counseling has had a “small,” “very little,” or “no” positive impact on their development.
While the data presented here are focused on the U.S. Army, it would be prudent to expect that each of the military services share similarly in these leadership development challenges to some degree. What we find disturbing is that these statistics are reflective of the impact, or lack thereof, that leaders are having on their subordinates. A recent guide on leadership, states that “Leaders have three principal ways of developing others. They can provide knowledge and feedback through counseling, coaching, and mentoring.” This recognizes coaching as a method of leader development; however, many leaders are not equipped with coaching skills in the leadership courses they attend as part of their professional military education (PME). For example, junior officers and non-commissioned officers are equipped with core competencies for counseling such as active listening and asking powerful questions in their respective leadership courses. There is overlap with the competencies required for coaching, specifically the competencies of relating, questioning, listening and contributing. Mentoring and coaching are only briefly examined in these courses and there is no training on the coaching mindset, empathy, skills, competencies, and applicable theory.
What is needed is an alignment of the PME and organizational leadership philosophies. Such an effort would support the services warfighting efforts while developing agile and adaptive leaders that enable enhanced individual and team performance.
Experience is the primary medium through which adults learn and develop professionally. With the leader as coach guiding them, subordinates can leverage their experience to develop “Quicksmarts” where the ability to reflect on action and learn from experience can be developed into the ability to reflect and learn in action. This accelerated learning strategy will enable more agile and adaptive leaders who are able to fight and win in the current and future operating environments.
Defining the “Ways”
Many organizations have a vision for what they want their leaders to be, and some have even formalized a framework to achieve it in their leadership development philosophies. For example, in the Army, we have clearly defined our desired leader development outcomes (ends) and the three training domains (means) in the Army leader development model. However, many organizations are still falling short in defining and delivering relevant skills, competencies and methodologies (ways) to achieve these outcomes. To address this shortcoming, we propose the adoption of the EAGLE Leader Development and Performance Coaching Model. This model is an adaptation of several widely recognized and utilized coaching models that is specifically designed to provide a direct leader development, performance and lifelong learning benefit to junior military members.
We define coaching as, “a learning and change process that builds a leader’s capabilities to achieve professional and organizational goals with the focus of the coaching being on leaders who are in a position to make a significant contribution to the organization’s purpose and mission.” In formalizing this coaching model in our leadership and professional education, it would provide the proper emphasis on coaching as a method of development and enable the dissemination and training of these skills throughout the military PME system.
The EAGLE Leader Development and Performance Coaching Model can be used within existing leader-led relationships and can augment current counseling programs to accelerate learning at a pace and breadth required to thrive in the contemporary volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment. This model explicitly enables leaders to drive organizational and personal learning agendas as part of one’s growth and development, facilitate increased depth of learning, and ultimately develop leaders with “quicksmarts.” Most importantly, this model demands that leaders and subordinates work from a position of mutual respect, trust and accountability that enables the effective implementation of mission command.
The Coaching Process
This model is a logical progression through the exploration and resolution of performance and skill related issues. It is intended to not only provide a clear framework, but also guide the leader’s decisions throughout the process while enabling learning for both the subordinate and the leader.
Despite its linear appearance, there is both implicit and explicit flexibility built into the model depending on the subordinate’s desired outcome. For example, if a subordinate has already made a decision and is seeking assistance in developing an action plan, a leader can skip directly to the “Learn through Action” step. Similarly, if a subordinate is not seeking assistance with a particular problem, but instead the ability to “see themselves” more effectively (i.e., gain self-awareness), a leader can move directly to the “Encourage Lifetime Learning & Development” step. Lastly, five key coaching skills are identified and are roughly aligned to the step in which they are most useful. These skills are what enable progression through the model. Furthermore, when exhibited effectively by a trained coach, these skills also ensure that subordinates can learn to independently adjust their thoughts and behavior effectively in the future.
Avoiding the Seven Deadly Sins of Coaching
To achieve the aforementioned leader development outcomes through coaching, leaders must skillfully apply the model. To that end, leaders must be very careful to avoid common coaching pitfalls that can minimize effectiveness or derail the relationship altogether. Offered below are the seven deadly sins of coaching and tips to help you avoid them in your pursuit of coaching excellence in your organization.
Coaching Sin #1 – Keeping your guard up
Any meaningful relationship is built on trust; subordinates will never elect to participate in a coaching interaction without it. Leaders must first and foremost demonstrate to their subordinates that they are capable and worthy of their trust by demonstrating genuine concern for their development and well-being. When leaders keep their guard up, they hide behind their rank and position as a direct supervisor. This lack of vulnerability breeds arrogance in both parties and prevents any real discovery or growth. Being explicit about the fact that you do not have all the answers is important; as leaders we must model this intellectual humility as an example of what we hope to develop in our subordinates.
“Letting your guard down” means approaching the coaching relationship with humility. Coaching requires both a mindset and a skillset. A humble coach takes a learning mindset and acknowledges what they don’t know; he demonstrates a genuine desire to learn along with the subordinate and doesn’t compete or keep score. A humble coach doesn’t jump to conclusions, but instead focuses on understanding things from the subordinate’s perspective and tries to get him to arrive at a “moment of self-discovery” on his own time. To accomplish this, leaders must be aware of boundaries, explicitly define them and operate between them with absolute transparency. In particular, the leader should establish mutual expectations that any coaching conversations will not be used to evaluate or judge the subordinate’s performance.
Coaching Sin #2 – Forcing the issue
For subordinates to fully buy-in to the coaching process they must have a choice in what skills and issues they are working on. Leaders must be especially cognizant of their influence in this area because failure to give the subordinate a choice in the process erodes trust and decreases commitment. This isn’t to say that the leader can’t nominate an issue for consideration. In fact, coaching almost always addresses a professional need. Therefore, during a counseling session, a leader may nominate a global performance issue, or a specific skill to be further explored through coaching. However, the leader and subordinate must both agree to transfer that issue into a coaching context; if a subordinate chooses not to work on this issue through coaching, the leader may choose to develop this issue through other, more directive techniques. In most situations however, leaders can avoid forcing the issue by asking the subordinate to nominate his or her own agenda items first. Forcing the issue can also take the form of being “too helpful” or relating your previous experience to what you perceive to be the current issue. Therefore, when sharing what you believe to be relevant personal or professional knowledge and experience, you must ask for permission. If the subordinate doesn’t want your advice or personal experience, you shouldn’t give it.
Coaching Sin #3 – Trying to solve the problem too early
One of the most common mistakes coaches make is to focus unnecessarily on solving the problem from the outset. It is valuable to begin with the end in mind, but when one is thinking about how to solve the problem it results in not fully listening. Effective coaches should operate from a “learner” as opposed to the “judger” mindset, one where the leader listens, questions and thinks first. This “judger” mindset prevents us from hearing what is being said, and everything that lays beneath what is being said. This lack of listening has two important implications. First, it can result in not establishing a common view of the problem; this effect can become even more pronounced when working across cultural lines. It is important to remember that like a patient presenting to a doctor with a certain set of symptoms and leaving with a much more intricate diagnosis, subordinates will often present with a set of concerns that don’t fully represent the whole problem. By solving the initial problem and declaring victory, we don’t ever dig deeper to identify and solve the larger, more deeply rooted problems.
One example could be when coaching an officer who presents with an issue revolving around how he or she is perceived by subordinates when giving direct guidance, this is a common problem for many leaders. However, upon further analysis, one might find that the more deeply rooted issue is complicated by his or her and others’ views about how to take up one’s command role differently due to gender and racial stereotypes about assertiveness in leadership. In this case, truly listening could provide the coach the ability to recognize certain logical fallacies like over-generalization or making arbitrary connections.
The second important implication of failing to listen is that it prevents us from looking beyond the basic causes and symptoms which keeps us from developing a deep understanding of the entire system, its parts and relationships, and the communication feedback between each element. Only once this understanding has been reached can the subordinate take ownership of his or her own actions and modify their behavior in the environment. The ability to make that behavior modification is a critical part of the subordinate’s learning.
It is important to remember that average coaching relationships in the civilian sector often last 6-9 months and it could easily last longer in a standard leader-subordinate context. This long-term orientation should predispose us towards a much more deliberate and methodical approach to solving problems. However, once you have mastered the skills and developed a broader relationship, and those inevitable quick-win opportunities within that relationship arise, there is always the opportunity to conduct short-term, high-impact “laser sessions” that could be conducted in only thirty to sixty minutes.
Coaching Sin #4 – Asking the wrong questions
Coaches in the “learner” mindset should use all four of the response modes (Objective, Reflective, Interpretive, and Decision - ORID) to elicit the total range of responses from the subordinate. This framework allows the leader to identify which response modes the subordinate is avoiding and then bring them to the surface of the discussion as we are not normally aware of all of the subtle ways in which our behavior, reactions and interactions are influenced. In particular, the ORID framework forces people to reflect on and include emotional and intuitive data that is often overlooked. By addressing the situation from every angle, decisions are ultimately strengthened.
Leaders in the coaching role can also use an after action review (AAR) process as a framework to help subordinate’s learn from their experiences. The AAR is designed to be an analysis of the team’s present performance with the objective being to improve the team’s future performance; however, through the use of ORID questions, and with the leader as coach guiding them, subordinates can learn to transition from reflecting on action to reflecting and learning in action, thereby developing “quicksmarts.”
Coaching Sin #5 – Failing to actively participate
Active participation in the form of regular meetings, frequent follow-up and assessment and goal assessment and modification is paramount to the success of any coaching relationship. This requires an investment in terms of equal responsibility and mutual accountability on behalf of both the leader and the subordinate. This mutual accountability is another way to build and maintain trust. The leader’s role is to challenge the subordinate to think differently and meet their goals. Similarly, the subordinate also has a responsibility to put forth the requisite amount of energy to do what they have agreed to do. In this way, they must elect to be “coachable.” If, at any time, a subordinate chooses to become un-coachable, it may become necessary to use more directive forms of counseling, teaching or mentoring to achieve the desired results. However, when active participation is established, it becomes an important signal to both parties that one’s time and effort is worth the investment.
Coaching Sin #6 – Failing to reduce interference
Reducing interference is about not only arming the subordinate with a set of skills, behaviors, and thought patterns but also actively setting conditions and removing barriers to their growth and development. One of the major responsibilities of the leader as coach is to operate from the assumption that performance is the sum of capacity minus interference thereby finding opportunities to challenge and support growth within their particular organizational context and with the resources at their disposal. Reducing interference can take many forms; it can be role-related in terms of ensuring that a subordinate is assigned an appropriate task or moved to the proper position to enable their learning. It could be support-based where a subordinate is paired with a subject matter expert to guide their learning. Or, it could be resource-based; this could be something as simple as reducing extraneous tasks to ensure the subordinate has adequate time to reflect and learn from their experiences.
Coaching Sin #7 – Not fully instilling the change
Encouraging lifetime learning and development is the end state for every coaching relationship no matter how quickly we get there. Ultimately, we want to make our subordinates more effective not only in the short-term through providing relevant skill development but also by internalizing the process and enabling their ability to learn in the future. Quick-win, short-term and skill-based learning is great but it doesn’t develop adaptive leaders capable of operating within the trust-based leadership constructs like the Army’s mission command. Constructing the coaching relationship around increasingly difficult, ambiguous and adaptive challenges that are fully supported and consistently assessed is one way to work towards maximum effect. At the end of the day, it is only though fully instilling an embedded personal learning model, one in which a subordinate can independently identify relevant cues in the environment, ask themselves powerful questions and quickly extract meaningful insights in action. Only then will be become the truly adaptive, agile and innovative leaders that we need to win in a complex world.
To create a coaching culture that supports our leader development objectives, we must institute appropriate changes to our training efforts on junior leaders. First, we must define the “ways” by formalizing the Army EAGLE Leader Development and Performance Coaching Model into our organizational leadership philosophies. Secondly, we must equip junior leaders with the requisite skills, competencies and mindset at their respective PME courses to put these important skills into use. One lesson from the past thirteen years is that on increasingly complex battlefields across the world, junior leaders will be required to make decisions that could have potential strategic level effects. By enabling our junior leaders with coaching education, training, skills and the EAGLE coaching model we can equip our junior leaders to develop more mentally agile and adaptive subordinates. This, in turn, will enable them to achieve professional and organizational goals and make better decisions in complex environments. Ultimately, these junior leaders will be poised to make a third-generational impact as they go on to develop the next crop of future junior leaders, thereby reinforcing the coaching culture as it is passed on throughout their organizations.
Major Brandon R. Soltwisch is an active duty Army Armor Officer serving as an Instructor of Leadership and Social Psychology in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy (USMA), West Point, NY. He holds a BA in Communications from Washington State University and a MA in Social-Organizational Psychology from Teachers College-Columbia University.
Jonathan Silk is a retired Army Armor Officer and a former faculty member at the United States Military Academy, West Point, NY. He is currently the Executive Director of Leadership Development at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.He is a graduate of the Columbia University Executive Coaching Certification Program. He holds an MBA from the University of Texas (Dallas), an M.A. in Learning Technology from Pepperdine University, and has a B.S. in Business Administration from Louisiana State University (Alexandria Campus).
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not reflect the official position or policy of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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