Leading, coaching, and managing

which hat to wear and when


Leading, coaching, and managing are similar, yet different. Each is an action that creates different results and will have a different impact, and each requires similar skills, yet each is applied differently. Communication is an example of a skill that is applied differently with each approach. This paper explores each approach, using two situations. Individuals and cultures have a natural tendency to favor one type of approach over another. Determining which actions to take is complex and challenging. This paper will explore the pure approaches and the impacts of leading, coaching, and managing. Three factors to consider in selecting an appropriate approach are reviewed. These are: the amount of change, the clarity of the outcome, and the closeness of the outcome. The ability to hold and use what appear to be opposite qualities or conditions is helpful in selecting an approach. Juggling of approaches is required more of middle to senior managers and project managers By being mindful and aware of all three approaches, more possibilities can emerge, which result in a wider range of choices being available in the moment or as part of a planned strategy.


Leading, coaching, and managing are like walking, running, and skipping — all similar actions, yet different. Each takes you to a destination. Each requires similar skills applied differently. The environment, situation, and your ability determine in a planned or unplanned manner how you use each. Leading, coaching, and managing are actions. Walking, running, and skipping are actions, too, which are done on two feet and move you from one point to another. They require gross motor skills; yet, different muscles and movements are used. They can all reach the same destination; however, the path, the speeds, and the levels of exertion will vary. Each will naturally attract different followers and fellow travelers. Within the same journey, planned or spontaneous, you can change from a run to a walk to a skip or in any sequence or combination. The change may be based on the weather, road conditions, emotions, or unseen events. Leader, coach, and manager are roles and titles, not actions. The role and title imply that each does the associated action. For example, a leader does not always perform leading; at times a leader may be required to do managing and coaching. This paper will explore the similarities, differences, and impacts of each approach. The goal is to consciously choose leading, coaching, or managing actions, regardless of what a person's title or role may actually be. Considering all three approaches increases the range of possible actions and produces a more holistic solution. Individuals and cultures have a natural tendency to apply and use one approach over another, which limits the outcome. The intent is to apply the most effective approach to any given situation, regardless of whether it occurs in a planned or spontaneous context. Specific suggestions, recommendations, and examples will be used.

Skills: Similar, but Different Approach

We begin to communicate the moment we are born. The level of skill we reach is based on our experiences, culture, and who we are as individuals. It used to be said that leaders are born, not made. It is true that some people are natural leaders, coaches, or managers. Many studies, including the field of Emotional Intelligence, show that leadership can be learned. (Goleman, 1995) Coaching and managing are learnable skills, too. In reality, often unconsciously, we adapt and use all three approaches as needed. Communication is a skill needed and used in all three of the approaches of leading, coaching, and managing. However, the way we communicate is what determines if we are leading, coaching, or managing. Most communication is unconscious and we are unaware of the impact we have on others. Paraphrasing a quote by John F. Kennedy Jr. asserted, “What we are speaks louder than what we say.” (Kennedy, 1960) That quote has been proven by many social scientists. One study that is frequently referred to is that of Dr. Albert Mehrabian (Mehrabian, 2012) who determined that when analyzing messages related to feelings and attitudes, only 7% of a message comes through the words themselves, 38% comes from the tone of voice, and a surprising 55% comes from body language, which includes things such as gestures, facial expression, posture, and eye contact. We are largely unaware of our body language and voice tone, yet awareness and control of these “communicators” are learnable skills. A leader communicates by influencing and motivating followers. Influencing and motivating seem like vague and intangible skills; yet, they are measurable and learnable by making adjustments to body language and voice tone. An example of this can be shown through the skill of an actor. If you watch the YouTube video clip of Don Draper, a character in the television series “Mad Men,” you will see him saying the single word “What” more than 30 times. (Mad Men, 2010) Each time, he conveys a different meaning through the use of his face, body, and vocal tone. The word itself remains the same. How a person communicates statements and questions using vocal tone, words, body language, and listening determines whether leading, coaching, or managing is being employed. Exhibit 1 is an example of a leading, coaching, and managing approach and how they could be used differently, when applied to two specific situations:

Communication Approach using Leading, Coaching, and Managing in Two Situations

Exhibit 1 – Communication Approach using Leading, Coaching, and Managing in Two Situations

Each of these approaches has a different impact on the person and situation. Each approach will produce different short and long-term results. All three approaches can be used over the course of one discussion. The actual approach employed may be unconscious and in reaction to an event or to emotions. A conversation may start with discovering what this person thinks needs to be done, a coaching approach. Then the conversation may switch to motivating and inspiring him or her to do what is right for the team or project, a leading approach. Finally you may switch to simply telling the team member what to do and how to do it, a managing approach. The dream environment, which can create high-performing teams are when individuals, along with short-term and long-term outcomes, are clear, aligned, and support one another.

Communication is a fundamental skill that is applied differently for leading, coaching, and managing. Other skills that are important for each approach, yet have different applications, are planning, relationship building, creating trust, making decisions, and resolving conflict. There are skills that are used by all three approaches but more frequently in an approach, for example listening for coaching; influencing for leading; and organizing for managing. Being a successful communicator is an important skill for leading, coaching, and managing. The real challenge is which communication approach to take that is best for the people and the situation.

Three Keys to Choosing an Approach

In deciding whether to take a leading, coaching, or managing approach, there are three questions to consider:

  1. What are the skill level and general tendency of the individual?
  2. What is the impact of using each approach?
  3. What does the situation need now to reach the desired outcomes?

Most people and cultures favor one approach over another. Using another approach feels alien, unnatural, and uncomfortable. Time and experience are the ways we learn to adapt and use different approaches. “Leadership voids” or “poor management” or having the sense that “with a little coaching, things would be better,” are symptoms of the wrong approach being used. The situations and jobs people are in frequently reflect their natural aptitude. A natural leader is attracted to version 1.0 of projects and entrepreneurship. A natural manager is attracted to the organizing and controlling aspect of project management. Leaders attract change; coaches build trust and deep enduring relationships; and managers strive to create order and organization in their lives and careers. The middle manager and project manager jobs are by nature in the middle, and require more frequent switching between approaches. In general, leading is the domain of senior positions and entrepreneurs. Managing is the domain of first level managers. In my practice, I coach middle level managers. Frequently, the underlying issue is a mismatch between a person's natural approach and what the job requires. Middle managers grow into the role and may be stuck, or never progress, simply because leading is an activity that is new to them and one that they must learn. When it is clear what a person's natural ability and approach are, then a conscious choice can be made to either grow into the other areas or delegate it to someone else who is strong with that approach.

Pure Leading

A leader is one who leads and pursues the activity of leading. Leading is guiding, directing, or influencing. Leading takes you and others places no one has been before. Leading involves change. A leader delivers on a vision, owned by themselves and followers. Frequently, the specifics of how to achieve the vision are unknown, unclear, and have never been done before.

The work of leading is about change — recognizing, articulating, and motivating others towards a new direction. “Leadership is a reciprocal relationship between those who choose to lead and those who decide to follow.” (Kouzes & Posner, 2002) According to the work of John Kotter (Kotter, 2001), the categories below are activities of the leader:

  • Motivating and Inspiring: energizing people to overcome major political, bureaucratic and resource barriers
  • Aligning People: communicating the direction by words and deeds to all in order to create a team that understands the vision and strategies and accepts them
  • Establishing Direction: developing a vision of the future and strategies for producing the changes needed to achieve it
  • Promoting Change: developing the potential to produce useful changes

An ongoing study over many decades and cultures from The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner indicates that consistently, worldwide, these four attributes are always over 50% of what people want their leaders to be:

  • Honest
  • Forward looking
  • Competent
  • Inspiring

Leaders and leadership are revered, hated, and worshipped worldwide. The path to becoming a leader and strategies for how to lead vary. There are multiple and conflicting profit and non-profit organizations and societies worldwide that teach leadership. Leading involves change and frequently deals with the unknown.

Pure Coaching

A coach is a person who engages in the act of coaching. The International Coach Federation (ICF) defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. (ICF, 2012, Coaching FAQ, paragraph 2) goes on to state that, “Coaches are trained to listen, to observe and to customize their approach to individual client needs. They seek to elicit solutions and strategies from the client; they believe the client is naturally creative and resourceful. The coach's job is to enhance the skills, resources, and creativity that the client already has.” (ICF, 2012, Coaching FAQ, paragraph 3) The coaching profession worldwide is in its infancy and growing. The industry has reached the US$2 billion number. (ICF, 2012 Global Coaching Study, paragraph 1) Coaching as a practice is not regulated. Standards are set and there is certification of coaches by the International Coach Federation. There are many forms of coaching — life, business, executive, health, and career, as well as hundreds of schools that teach coaching. Recently, a handful of universities now offer a master's degree in coaching. Coaching has been equated with personal training. Coaching can be a powerful approach in helping identify and achieve a client's goals, objectives, values, and vision.

Pure Managing

A manager is a person who manages by handling, providing direction, or control. The actions of a manager are to control and solve problems, organize and staff, plan and budget, promote order and stability. A project manager delivers the project objective. A manager delivers on a known objective. Taking again from the work of John Kotter (Kotter, 2001), managers perform these activities:

  • Planning and Budget: establishing detailed steps and timetables for achieving results and then allocating the resources necessary to make it happen
  • Organizing and Staffing: establishing a structure to accomplish plan requirements, staffing that structure with people, delegating authority for carrying out the plan, providing policies, and procedures to guide people, and creating methods or systems to monitor implementation
  • Promoting Stability and Order: developing the potential for consistently producing key results
  • Controlling and Problem Solving: monitoring results in detail, identifying deviation from the plan, and organizing to solve these problems

Managing as a skill is taught and learned in many forms. General supervision and management is taught by the American Management Association. Industry specific management is taught by various organizations. Project Management Institute is a not-for-profit worldwide organization for learning the tasks and skills of managing projects. Managing deals with controlling and solving problems for known goals and objectives.

Key 1: Putting it together – Ability and Strengths

Leading, coaching, and managing are different. Each has a different focus, approach to change, range of relevant activities, and relates to others differently. The first step in selecting which approach to use is awareness of your natural skills. A person's natural ability and strength are usually fairly apparent by reviewing the pure application of leading, coaching, and managing. It is easier and often an unconscious choice to apply and use your natural abilities, which, if not expanded, limit the possibilities for effective solutions. This is how people get stuck in a role or job or at certain level, by applying the same approach over and over to situations that are new and might benefit from a different approach.

If not skilled in a particular approach, there are two choices for how to proceed. The first is to learn and practice and become skilled in the other area. The second is to ask the help of someone who may have that needed skill. An example of this was with a project manager who because of her amazing project organizing skills was selected to run a company-critical project. Significant politics and resistance surrounded the project. Her strength was not in influencing and motivating and time was short. She did want to learn how to expand her skills, but needed immediate motivation for her team which was collapsing due to the external resistance and pressure. She asked her sponsor, who was a known motivational leader, to attend her weekly team meetings. Her flexibility to bring in someone who already possessed the needed skill allowed the project to be delivered successfully. Exhibit 2 describes the differences in the pure approaches.

Pure Leading, Coaching, Managing Approaches

Exhibit 2 – Pure Leading, Coaching, Managing Approaches

Key 2: Impacts of Leading, Coaching, Managing

Each approach has a different impact and different results. In reality, a person will adapt and use multiple approaches. Rarely is one approach exclusively used. A classic time management story tells about the person who spends his or her life climbing the corporate ladder by doing what was expected. When he or she reached the top of the ladder and looked around and saw where he or she had arrived, it was not where he or she wanted to be. Because the person had never looked at a long-term vision or done the work of leading, he or she had spent his or her whole career managing the next short-term goal; hence, he or she had climbed the wrong ladder. For some, it is hard and takes courage to stop and reflect, ask, and answer the questions: What ladder do I want to move forward on? Where is the ladder I am on now taking me? All three approaches need to be considered and used at different times. New coaches are taught pure coaching at first. The first four coaching courses I taught were pure coaching. Pure coaching instructs student coaches to remove themselves from the equation, to hold in abeyance all their assumptions, judgments, and opinions and to not give any advice. It sounds easy, but is hard to do. Master coaches doing pure coaching make it look like magic and can create amazing breakthroughs and results. Exhibit 3 describes the kind of impact using each approach in its purest form can have.

Impact Effects of Leading, Coaching, and Managing Impact Effects of Leading, Coaching, and Managing

Exhibit 3 – Impact Effects of Leading, Coaching, and Managing

Key 3: Desired Outcome from Three Variables: Change, Clarity, Closeness

The clearer the desired outcome the easier it is to pick an approach based on the situation. The more change required to achieve the outcome is also a factor in determining the approach. The relative “distance” of the long-term outcome typically means fewer specifics are critical now, and this is the third factor in determining the approach. When the amount of change, the clarity, and the closeness of the outcome are all known, then it is easier to select an approach. Consider the two situations from earlier, those of a team member's task being late and a top athletic performer not performing. For each situation consider:

  • How clear is the outcome?
  • Which level of outcome is most important – short term, medium term, long term?
  • How much change is required?

In general, the closer to the vision the outcome is and the more change required, the more leading is needed. If the desired outcome is unknown, coaching is required. If the desired outcome is clear and close, a managing approach may be best. The best case is when all the levels of outcome are known and aligned and the actions support each other. The challenge is in balancing the tradeoffs and the impacts and potential outcomes of each, as can be seen in Exhibit 4.

Sample Outcome Levels

Exhibit 4 – Sample Outcome Levels

Win the War, and Lose the Battle

If the most important outcome is being certain that an organization is creating an ethical legacy, a decision to not play a sports superstar who was just convicted of a serious crime would be justifiably made. The team may end up having a losing season, but the legacy they leave behind will remain intact. In that moment of a game when the player's skill is needed, a leadership approach is required to inspire and motivate and remind people of the larger vision that the legacy is most important. The game may be lost but the legacy remains intact. The reverse might be true for an important task on a project. If that task is the most important outcome, then solving the problem is done no matter what the cost. Frequently in start-up organizations, this kind of focus is justified with statements similar to this: “Do whatever it takes to get it done, so we can live to fight another day.”

Change is the territory for leading, status quo for managing, and the unknown for coaching. The more change required to achieve the desired outcome means more leading. A way to measure the amount of change is to categorize the current situation by what is new and different in these four areas: people, technology/tools, processes, and content expertise. It is also significant to rate the amount of newness from the immediate person's perspective, as well as the project's, the company's, and the industry's. In general, the further away one is from an outcome, and the more change is required in achieving it, the more leading is required. The less change required to deliver the outcome, the more a managing approach works. And if the outcome is unknown, coaching may be required.

Juggling Effectively: The Use of Mindfulness

Leading, coaching, and managing are very different actions. Juggling all three requires skill. The ability to recognize and make these tradeoffs is complex and challenging. Mindfulness and accepting what appear to be opposites are two methods for making better choices. Successfully being able to juggle all three will create a system-level solution.

Mindfulness, defined by attentive awareness of the reality in the present moment is a skill that can be learned. It improves the ability to make better and more holistic choices. Middle managers and project managers frequently, both in planned and spontaneous circumstances, are required to have this juggling skill. They interact with many diverse functions and work at producing different levels of outcomes. Being mindful allows observation to be done nonjudgmentally and without assigning any immediate subjective assessment. In the moment the situation is not defined as good, bad, hard, or easy: it just is what it is. Mindfulness allows the objective observation of one's own emotions and senses. It allows the flexibility to enter a problem-solving mode and choose from among the best actions rather than being stuck in reflexive mental habits or emotions. This is not to say that cultivating mindfulness suggests that the emotions and feeling be denied, repressed, or ignored; rather, at that moment of decision, to observe them and allow action from less constrained, more expanded choices to proceed first. It is similar to being in an emergency situation and being able to choose to do life-saving actions now and deal later with the emotional impact of the event. Mindfulness in that moment of choice expands the possibilities of action. There are many ways to learn to be more mindful and individuals can benefit greatly by finding out what works for them.

By initially accepting what can appear to be opposites allows for a more comprehensive solution. Being willing to lose the game to win the season is an application of this strategy. By losing a game, it may place a team in a different playoff spot that allows them to subsequently win the season. Inspiring, telling, and listening to a team member who is late with a task may be the best approach. Instinctively, many managers use all three approaches, leading, coaching, and managing. Including and embracing what appear to be opposites can create a solution that includes multiple approaches. Being able to hold, examine, and include opposites requires “AND” thinking. The following are examples of where conditions of contradictions exist and inclusive thinking is needed to reach a holistic approach.

  • Manage the big picture AND the details
  • Innovate and be creative AND maintain stability
  • Be hands on AND hands off
  • Encourage individuals AND emphasize the team
  • Be flexible AND firm
  • Be loyal to the team AND loyal to the organization
  • Leading AND coaching AND managing


Leading, coaching, and managing are similar, yet different. Each is an action that creates different results and will have a different impact. Each requires similar skills, such as the ability to communicate effectively, yet these skills are applied differently in each approach. Individuals and cultures have a natural tendency to favor one type of approach over another. Determining which actions to take is complex and challenging. The amount of change, the clarity of the outcome, and the closeness of the outcome should be considered in deciding. By being mindful, more possibilities emerge, which allow for a better range of choices in both planned and spontaneous circumstances.


Garcia, H.F. (2012). The power of communication: skills to building trust, inspiring loyalty, and leading effectively. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ. Bantam Books: USA and Canada.

Goleman, D. (1998). What makes a leader? Harvard Business Review, 76(6), 93–103.

International Coach Federation (2012). Citing definitions for Coaching. Retrieved definitions from http://www.coachfederation.org/about-icf/overview/

International Coach Federation (2012). Citing definitions for Coaching. Retrieved Industry revenue from http://www.coachfederation.org/articles/index.cfm?action=view&articleID=1065&sectionID=1

Kennedy, J. F. (1960). QuoteInvestigator.com. Retrieved from QuoteInvestigator.com http://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/01/27/what-you-do-speaks/

Kotter, J. (2001). What leaders really do. Harvard Business Review, pp 85–96.

Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2002). The leadership challenge (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (1993). Credibility. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Leader. (2012). Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com LLC. Retrieved from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/leader?s=t

Mad Men: Don Draper says “What?” (2010). YouTube.com. [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WsJSRP7cZVo

Manager. (2012). Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com LLC. Retrieved from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/manager?s=t

Mehrabian, A. (1981). Silent messages: Implicit communication of emotions and attitudes. Retrieved from http://www.kaaj.com/psych/smorder.html

Project Management Institute. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) — Fourth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Whitworth, L., Kimsey-House, H., & Sandahl, P. (1998). Co-active coaching: new skills for coaching people towards success in work and life. Palo Alto, CA: Davies Black Publishing.

© 2012 Star Dargin
Originally published as a part of the 2012 PMI Global Conference Proceedings – Vancouver, BC, Canada



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