Anyone Can Lead: Powerful Questions for Leadership Coaching - International Coaching Federation

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Anyone Can Lead: Powerful Questions for Leadership Coaching

Posted by Julia Fabris McBride, PCC | June 1, 2019 | Comments (2)

Leadership is an activity, not a position. It’s a verb, not a noun.

Traditional definitions conflate leadership and authority. These definitions assume leadership is the work of an elite few in companies and communities. The burdens and the privileges of leadership belong to those at the top. The traditional notion of leadership is insufficient to address complex 21st-century challenges.

As a coach, you’ve already realized that today’s companies and communities need people exercising leadership at all levels—CEO to frontline worker, local volunteer to big city mayor. Those at the top need to exercise leadership. But it is not their work alone.

There is plenty to read, some authored by the Kansas Leadership Center (KLC) and much more in the work of Harvard University’s Ron Heifetz, about the distinctions between adaptive challenges and technical problems. Bottom line: While we can solve technical problems with existing knowledge, adaptive challenges are messier. They are complicated. They involve people’s feelings and values. Progress on adaptive challenges requires engaging people who don’t think like us. For change to happen, everyone in a system needs to learn, stretch, grow, manage ourselves and intervene differently than we’ve always done.

Today’s complex challenges, and urgent opportunities to make a difference, beckon us all to be leadership coaches. Leadership is an activity available to anyone, anytime, anyplace. When leadership is a verb, we need leadership coaches everywhere.

Knowing nothing more about KLC’s leadership principles and competencies, you can begin using the same powerful questions our coaches use with clients who seek to intervene and lead more skillfully. Here are some samples to get you started.

1) Digging in to Difficulty

Here are questions to help your client or colleague unpack the complexities of the situation in which they want to exercise leadership:

  • What assumptions have you made?
  • Who has a different perspective?
  • What are other possible interpretations?
  • Who has a stake in the matter?
  • What values do different stakeholders represent?
  • What are they loyal to?
  • What makes this situation so complex? Challenging? Entrenched?
  • Who is the system working for?
  • What happens if the system doesn’t change?
  • What have you tried so far?
  • What do you need to learn or explore?

2) Pivoting to Leadership

These are questions to help clients move toward the activity of leadership:

  • What type of leadership is necessary?
  • What is the purpose of your intervention?
  • What pushback can you expect?
  • What work is being avoided?
  • What conflict needs facing?
  • What’s the burning question no one has asked?
  • What capacity does the system need to develop?
  • What’s negotiable? What’s not?
  • What makes this so important?
  • What are your curious about?

3) Self-managing amid Uncertainty or Risk

Finally, here are questions to help clients manage themselves when leadership is an activity:

  • What are your strengths in this situation?
  • What is the stretch for you?
  • What is holding you back?
  • What values or needs of your own might be getting in the way?
  • How credible are you with the different players?
  • What are the limits of your authority?
  • What are the constraints of your authority?
  • What risks have you been unwilling to take?
  • What unpopular action might lead to progress?
  • What would be the comfortable choice?
  • If you decide to intervene differently, whose support do you need?

Pair these three sets of leadership coaching questions with a good agreement, active listening and your strong coaching presence. Be a partner in the activity of leadership.


©2019 Kansas Leadership Center

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Julia Fabris McBride, PCC

Julia Fabris McBride, PCC, is vice president at the Kansas Leadership Center (KLC), founder of its ICF-approved Leadership Coach training program and co-author of Teaching Leadership: Case-in-Point, Case Studies and Coaching. Founded in 2007, KLC is a first-of-its-kind nonprofit educational organization with a civic mission, national reputation and global reach. KLC’s leadership curriculum builds on the Adaptive Leadership Framework pioneered by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and integrates collaborative and process tools from the field of civic engagement and community development.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (2)

  1. Cheryl Roy says:

    I love what Julia had to say about adaptive versus technical. It is worth the training.

  2. Hi Julie: As I was reading through your powerful questions, I was thinking to myself – I hear a resonance of Adaptive Leadership here. Sure enough, I read about KLC uses this framework in its work. I am a great fan of Marty and Ron and frequently quote from their workshops.

    Thanks for sharing the questions.

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