Before describing how to unlock leadership through coaching, I want to mention that Vital Physician Executive was featured on Future Proof MD. Please check out Future Proof Docs – The Vital Physician Executive and let me know what you think.

How to Unlock Leadership Through Coaching

My thinking about coaching has been evolving.

leadership through coaching socrates

The Death of Socrates – by Jacques-Louis David

As I described in my post comparing coaching and mentoring, coaching can be defined as the process of helping someone improve a skill by offering feedback as an impartial but knowledgeable observer.

In that model, a coach is focused on improving an individual's skill in a certain area. This follows the old sports model of coaching.

Batting and pitching coaches in baseball, or swing coaches in golf are common examples. As experts in those areas, coaches closely observe an athlete and offer advice and feedback to help fine tune the athlete's performance. These coaches focus on seeing what the coachee cannot see, and providing insight to them.

Such a coach can be contrasted with a mentor. Generally, mentors are persons who help to guide the mentee over a much longer time frame to achieve personal or professional maturation. A mentor may offer resources, like books or courses, and will point out career options to consider and pursue.

A More Nuanced Understanding of Coaching

I came to appreciate a more meaningful and effective definition of coaching during the American Association for Physician Leadership Spring Institute in New York City. In a previous post (Pursuing Resilient Physician Leadership), I described my experiences attending the conference.

Coaching was the topic of the second course that I attended. In it, Ed Walker provided an introduction to coaching as it relates to physician performance.

According to Walker, the updated definition of coaching is a process of inquiry used to “unlock potential and maximize performance.” The coach does not require expertise in the field of the coachee (baseball, golf, management, leadership).

Instead, the coach must know how to use appropriate questioning, much like the Socratic Method, to foster insights in the coachee that lead to self-awareness, motivation and growth.

The course included a didactic portion and group discussions. But it also provided several opportunities for the participants to practice and observe coaching in three-member teams involving a coach, a coachee and an observer.

Walker distinguished mentoring from coaching by noting that mentorship is a “personal developmental relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person (the mentor) assists a less experienced or less knowledgeable person (the apprentice, protégé, mentee) in the acquisition of advanced knowledge and skills.”

I found this experience to be very instructive.

Following my participation in the course, I read several books about coaching, including the classic text by John Whitmore, Coaching for Performance that was recommended by Walker.

In this post, I'll try to summarize my take on the topic, based on my integration of these learning experiences.

Comprehensive View

The term “coaching” can be applied to a wide array of interactions between a coach and those being coached: teaching, mentoring, influencing, leading, tutoring, advising, counselling, consulting, supervising, and managing, to name a few.

Walker noted that, in his model, coaching is similar in some respects to psychotherapy. They are both non-directive and involve talking with, and listening to, another person. And both are carried out in a trusting, non-judgmental, confidential manner.

But coaching is NOT therapy.

There is no illness to be cured. And the focus is on the participant succeeding at organizational goals and professional growth, rather than addressing personal issues or mental illness.

Further Distinctions

He points out that a mentor guides. A supervisor checks your work. A counsellor listens and supports.

leadership through coaching mentor

But a coach asks questions, similar to the Socratic Method, and helps the coachee discover and clarify for themselves what needs to be done to achieve a desired goal.

Coaching for Performance

The role of the coach is to ask questions, listen, reflect, and encourage the coachee to do the following:

  1. Reframe a problem as a goal. For example, to transform the issue of “being unhappy in my job,” to the goal of “finding or creating a job that I am passionate about.”
  2. Review the current circumstances, and what has worked and what has not worked in the past.
  3. Identify the “universe” of potential actions that might be taken to move closer to the goal.
  4. Decide on a course of action and report back at the next coaching session.

In his book, Whitmore describes how coaching can be used in many settings, both formal and informal. He spends a significant amount of time extolling the virtues of coaching as an effective approach to managing.

He emphasised the benefits of coaching over directing and writes that coaching…

  • empowers managers,
  • promotes growth,
  • reduces the need to micromanage, and
  • produces happier, more independent employees.

By learning coaching principles, the leader will be better positioned to enhance listening, fuel engagement, and increase accountability.

Whitmore believes that coaching is an ideal way to approach interactions with direct reports.

“The coach is not a problem solver, a teacher, an advisor, an instructor, or even an expert; he or she is a sounding board, a facilitator, a counsellor, an awareness raiser.”

leadership through coaching john whitmore

In a previous post, I described a meeting of me, my COO and the laboratory director. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the challenges my director was having with one of her employees. It is a good example of the use of coaching to help her arrive at a plan for addressing this challenge.

Professional Coaches

At the extreme of this continuum are the paid professional business coaches. Such coaches use the same approach, and are unlikely to offer advice. They do not serve as consultants. They do not require deep knowledge of the content area.

Their primary role is to question the “student” in a way that encourages him/her to identify solutions themselves.

They follow a strict code of conduct, such as those promulgated by the International Coach Federation. They usually use contracts to describe their relationships.

Mastermind Groups

Finally, as part of this discussion of coaches, I want to address mastermind groups. Although mastermind groups were written about over 70 years ago, they are seen as a new phenomenon and have become very popular recently.

A mastermind group may resemble group coaching, but they typically also include sharing of advice, mentoring and networking that deviate from the definition of coaching that I'm using here.

leadership through caoching lao tsu


In summary, coaching is a process in which the coach, through the Socratic Method, attempts to foster awareness, insight and accountability. He or she assists in the professional development of the person being coached resulting in greater:

  • Independence
  • Accountability
  • Leadership
  • Motivation
  • Clarity
  • Self Reliance
  • Self Determination

Coaching also enhances the coachee's ability to listen, ask questions, reframe objectives, and support and encourage others.

Next Steps

For physician leaders, I encourage you to do the following:

  1. Read John Whitmore's book, Coaching for Performance.
  2. If you're a member of the AAPL, consider attending the next presentation on Coaching and Mentoring.
  3. Begin to apply coaching principles to your interactions with colleagues and managers.

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