Times like these demand that business leaders be coaches

At the best of times most of us need prompting to do the things we actually want to do. Most of us need a coach, mentor, engaged boss or patiently honest friend to nudge us to become what we could be at work.

But these are not the best of times. True, we have emerged from the dark days of the Covid pandemic, but many of us still carry the scars emotionally. All the psychotherapists I know are booked up months ahead and looking for where to refer more psychological casualties of the past few years.

And of course the future continues to hold huge uncertainties. Fuel prices and inflation threaten livelihoods. The shortage of fertilisers created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threaten agriculture, on which more than half of Africa’s people depend. It brings the spectre of food shortages and starvation.

At a time like this owners and managers of businesses need both to help their people perform at their best and to support their mental health and happiness.

Executive coaching by a professional person is valuable. I recommend it. But this is not always available to people in small and medium enterprises. Fortunately coaching can also refer to the style in which managers interact with those who report to them. It’s a generative approach to managing that brings out the best in others – which is, after all, what managers should do.

The consulting firm Hay/McBer identified six leadership styles displayed by senior managers. They describe two of them as dissonant: Authoritarian and Coercive. They may be needed from time to time, but they damage organisational climate when used too often and are correlated with poorer company financial performance. Four styles are described as resonant: Affiliative, Democratic, Pace-setting and Coaching. They build positive climate and are correlated with better company performance.

In his book on emotional intelligence in leadership, Daniel Goleman writes that effective leaders don’t stick to one style only, but draw on most or all of these styles as appropriate.

The focus of the coaching style is developing people for the future. I think it can be used even while adopting the other styles – one can be almost brutally demanding if the occasion requires, while still taking time to ensure that the person learns and grows in competence and confidence through the experience.

An essential requirement for the success of this tough love blend of demand and acceptance is respect. I grow when you imply that you respect me too much to allow me to get away with less than my best. And I accept correction if I believe you will do whatever it takes to help me become as good as I can be. That includes respecting my own way of doing things rather than assuming that I have to be like you.

Derek Keys once described his role as business leader and finance minister as providing a “loving, critical audience” to his staff. At a time of personal pain and business uncertainty, I think owners and managers can contribute hugely both to business success and personal thriving by being a coach to their people. So my next several columns will be a series of coaching letters to a different person each time, mostly people in small to medium-sized companies who have questions about a particular stage on their career journey.

They are all real people, although of course I shall omit or change identifying details. I will address both the recipient’s question about making progress in their career, and the manager/owner’s question of how to empower their team to grow and perform optimally. And I’ll provide an address where you can send suggestions or questions of your own. Let’s collaborate in restoring health and dignity to our people at work.


Jonathan Cook is a Counselling Psychologist and Chairman of the African Management Institute. This is a coaching columns for Business Day, published on 30 May 2022  (https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2022-05-30-jonathan-cook-times-such-as-these-demand-that-business-leaders-be-coaches/ ).

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