How to Build a Coaching Mindset as a School Leader

habits of effecitve ceos (17)

Headteachers who embed a coaching culture in their schools see the benefits of collaboration, clear communication, increased candour, respect and kindness. They report a significant return on their investment of time and money. How can Headteachers leverage those gains? One way is for Headteachers themselves to embody a coaching mindset. A coaching mindset is not a by-product of a coaching culture. It is an independent undertaking that, when combined with a coaching culture, turbo-charges the quality of School Leadership and community. 

What is a coaching mindset?

In essence, it is the conscious development and maintenance of a mindset that is open, curious and flexible. It is not an inevitable outcome of being coached, or indeed of being a coach. The International Coaching Federation only recently (2019) added “Embodies a Coaching Mindset” as a core competence for professional coaches, a skill that differentiates the best coaches from the rest. So too can Headteachers cultivate a coaching mindset as a precision tool for honing leadership edge. 

Why is a coaching mindset important for Headteachers?

Headteachers strive for excellence in an increasingly complex political and ethical environment. School leaders dedicated to the learning potential of others, often struggle when asked to articulate in what ways they themselves are developing their own potential. The linear achievements of continuous professional development and the relentless solving of problem after problem require laser focus, an exactitude that comes with the risk of tunnel vision. Similarly, the necessary accountability and protection afforded by policy, legislation, hierarchy, rules and regulations, can become a constraint, a cognitive cage that is the antithesis of openness, curiosity and flexibility. A coaching mindset provides a counterbalance to the weight of power, position, constant visibility and multi-stakeholder scrutiny. 

How can a Headteacher develop a coaching mindset?

The prerequisite is to commit to ongoing self-directed personal development. It is a “selfish” promise; one made to “me myself” and not to other people. Always a work in progress, it is a practice of discovery, an exploration of mental, emotional, and moral choices that invites intuition, creativity, and uncertainty.

The practice of developing a coaching mindset has five core components.

  1. Become skilled in the art of appreciative enquiry. Despite unremitting busyness, take time to notice what is working. Dig deep to appreciate your own talents. In a world where everything is quantified what is your unique value add? How can you leverage those strengths? What makes you special? You are not your job. One day your job will be someone else’s job, and one day the job, the career, will be done. Who will you be then? What is your legacy? Develop a coaching mindset that acts like a critical friend with your best interests at heart. Notice what to acknowledge, to affirm, to celebrate – right now. 
  2. Get out of your comfort zone – frequently. Coaching mindset is about the art of the possible. Do not allow your strong boundaries to become prison walls, or prioritisation of risk management to morph into rigidity. Choose to not always be the grown-up in the room. Seek out situations where you do not have an answer, where you can experience the vulnerability and curiosity of beginner’s mind. Experiment and have fun. Get things wrong. Surrender the notion of perfection; and the need to be right. “Yes but …. I don’t have time”. “Yes but …. I can’t see how to …”. Notice every “Yes but”, just as you identify resistance at work. You are your own resistance.
  3. Make a regular appointment with yourself. Develop an ongoing reflective practice, giving yourself the gift of space and of silence. Listen to the quiet behind your mind chatter. Notice how you feel and journal. Let emotions surface. For School Leaders, emotional regulation and avoidance of triggers is a key survival strategy. At what cost? What is being suppressed? What are you missing? Emotions are clues to unmet needs, and all too often Headteachers subjugate their own needs in favour of meeting those of other people. Ultimately coaching mindset will pose the questions we and our subconscious work hard to deny. 
  4. Remain aware of, and open to, the influence of context and culture. It is difficult to know what you don’t know. Get a different perspective. Seek out an additional mentor; someone whom you respect from outside education. A successful leader, grounded in a different sector, who appreciates your talent and your vision, but does not share your worldview, will consistently challenge your assumptions. 
  5. Ask for help. Do not wait until breaking point; rather develop a new habit of asking “Who can help with this?” Headteachers, motivated by service to others, are often reluctant to invite others to serve them, and indeed to best serve themselves. Who serves you? How do you serve yourself? 

How will I and my school community benefit?

With a coaching mindset, with or without a coaching culture, Headteachers thrive. In challenging leadership edge, they develop not only a culture of excellence, but also a creative resilience that protects against burnout. Remaining open, flexible and curious, provides access to resources far beyond traditional vested interests and institutional stakeholders. Cultivating a coaching mindset is not easy. It requires courage and vulnerability. In times of struggle, remember that we may not always know why we travel, but when we reach our destination, we know why we travelled.