Acknowledge that a team is not a collection of people, but an interdependent collective. Provide feedback and guidance that encourages inclusion, respect, and collaboration by making it clear that you see the team as an interdependent community. This means requiring respect and kindness through disagreements, as well as making sure people show gratitude for one another — and that starts with role-modeling appreciation and warmth.

The number one leadership initiative in any organization today is improved coaching. Coaching empowers employees, empowerment drives engagement, and engagement drives performance. At its core, coaching is about transformation. Leading distributed teams requires transforming how we coach and changing our play calls and playbooks to get things done. As a part of our interview series called “Moving From Command & Control to Coaching & Collaboration; How Leaders and Managers Can Become Better Coaches,” we had the pleasure to interview Lena Athena.

Lena Athena empowers leaders to hone their inner self-talk, set powerful boundaries, and cultivate a respected leadership presence. She is an accoladed community leader and host of the podcast The School of Self. Lena is also a TEDx speaker, Silicon Valley’s 2020 Woman of Influence, and past Chair of the Santa Clara County Commission on the Status of Women.

Thank you for joining us to explore a critical inflection point in how we define leadership. Our readers would like to get to know you better. What was a defining moment that shaped who you are as a leader?

When I reflect on my leadership experiences, I find a lot of growth occurred during my time as Chairperson of Santa Clara County’s Commission on the Status of Women. In representing the Commission, I worked with incredible Commissioners and a wide variety of passionate and strong-willed leaders across government departments and community-based organizations. I learned a lot from these incredible women, especially how to ensure that all the wisdom of a team is heard — not just the wisdom expressed by the loudest voices. While I’ve always valued diversity of thought, learning how to extract it from a team has made me a much better leader and I’m incredibly grateful.

John C. Maxwell is credited with saying, “A leader is someone who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” How do you embody that quote as a leader?

I see authority as an internal experience rather than an external resource; therefore, authority is not intrinsic to a leader’s role but interdependent on how a leader serves the wellness of each individual. I prioritize creating an environment where people are respected and appreciated for what they bring to the table and are clearly required to allow the same for others. We achieve success and wellness through work that inspires, challenges we value overcoming, and getting up when we fall without judging ourselves for every set-back, and as the quote expresses, it is my mission to inspire others to grow, expand, and achieve through role modeling self-trust, humility, and open-minded self-leadership.

How do you define the differences between a leader as a manager and a leader as a coach?

As a manager, a leader sets the direction and provides the necessary resources to meet goals. As in the John C. Maxwell quote, a manager-style leader “knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way,” and their accountability and responsibility end there. As a coach, a leader need not know the way, show the way, or go the way — they need a very different set of skills that elicit knowing (awareness), going (action), and showing (communication) from others.

A manager is a source of authority to others, and a coach encourages others to tap into their internal authority — to grow, adapt, create, take calculated risks, and have the confidence and humility to decide when it is time to start from scratch or the wisdom to change the course.

As a coach, you understand and openly acknowledge that you do not hold the combined intellect, experience, and wisdom of everyone you lead. Coaching is the art of building confidence and clarity in others so that you help them extract and apply their insights as a team.

We started our conversation by noting that improved coaching is the number one leadership initiative in any organization today. What are some essential skills and competencies that leaders must have now to be better coaches?

You can appreciate that your role as a leader is to shepherd the time, energy, and focus of others. Therefore, one of your primary roles as a leader is to keep your team focused and energized. Accordingly, there are two essential skills that leaders must have now to be better coaches:

  1. Leaders need to learn to assess passion. People perform their best when working on projects that elicit authentic joy, curiosity, and creativity. As a leader, you guide a variety of personalities with varied strengths and interests. Though people can push themselves in the short term, no leader can create inspiration where intrinsic motivation does not exist. Too often, we look at the results employees can muster through brute force rather than the innovative power of their genuine interests. Learn to see, hear, and feel the enthusiasm of your team. They will feel seen, heard, valued, and encouraged to live a more authentic and intrinsically rewarding life. In turn, they will appreciate you and each other more, improve collaboration, and have seemingly endless enthusiasm and drive.
  2. Leaders must master conflict resolution. Unresolved conflicts can create emotional and mental confusion and frustration that burn through the team’s energy. Swept under the rug, they simply fester. As a leader, people rely on your clarity of direction, and that has less to do with goals and KPIs and more to do with the mission in which the team invests their hearts and souls and the values that set organizational priorities. Leaders need to learn to gently and humbly approach conflict with genuine curiosity and patience, so they may explore the misaligned values driving the interrelational sense of opposition and unappreciation.

We’re all familiar with the adage, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” How are you inspiring — rather than mandating — leaders to invest in upskilling and reskilling?

As I’ve touched on, I believe that the best strategy for a team is to ensure people feel fulfilled and engaged in work they love. Fulfilled people are excited to work, intrinsically motivated, creative, passionate, and even kinder. Inspiring others to align with their highest values is easy, inspiring others to act outside their highest values is exceptionally challenging and moot. Rather than waste time, energy, and focus on asking others to move in the direction I feel is “right,” I work with leaders to gain clarity on their top values and the confidence to lead in alignment with their sense of purpose and unique perspective.

Let’s get more specific. How do you coach someone to do their best work? How can leaders coach for peak performance in our current context? What are your “Top 5 Ways That Leaders and Managers Can Be Effective Coaches?”

  1. Cultivate community:

Acknowledge that a team is not a collection of people, but an interdependent collective. Provide feedback and guidance that encourages inclusion, respect, and collaboration by making it clear that you see the team as an interdependent community. This means requiring respect and kindness through disagreements, as well as making sure people show gratitude for one another — and that starts with role-modeling appreciation and warmth.

2. Be available:

A team performs better with the right resources, and that includes a leader who is mentally and emotionally present, engaged, and generous. Make yourself readily available and willing to share your brain space, insights, and thought partnership as helpful to others. Set up brief check-ins, ask how you can support them, and ensure that everyone feels like you’re an active team member in their success.

3. Recognize others:

Provide abundant recognition. Individuals have different wants and need when it comes to recognition, but a basic foundation is to give credit where credit is due. Beyond this, you may lead people who thrive with more attention, words of affirmation, or expressions of gratitude, and it is important to know how to make each person on your team feel appreciated.

4. Role-model prioritization:

It’s easy to add to a never-ending to-do list, but that causes more distress than progress. Prioritizing is what allows you to make sure your time, energy, and focus go where they are truly needed — and nowhere else. When you prioritize, you’ll have the time and the brain space to be available, supportive, and recognize others. You’ll feel more accomplished because your to-do list will remain short and only have critical items. And, you’ll be able to lead your team to focus on what matters and ignore unnecessary distractions.

5. When in doubt, ask questions:

It’s okay to have moments of uncertainty — and it’s risky to try to “fix” them fast without asking the right questions. Not only can it take a team off the path, but it can reduce trust. Whenever you need more information, ask for it. If you’re not sure what information you need, ask others for advice. If they don’t think you need information, be curious about what else will help. If nothing changes, nothing changes — and the curious nature of asking questions is a great way to cultivate thoughtful and sustainable change, as needed. It also makes your team feel more valuable and helps them grow as leaders, which increases retention, satisfaction, and productivity. Questions are amazing — enjoy them.

We’re leading and coaching in increasingly diverse organizations. And one aspect of workforce diversity on the rise is generational diversity. What advice would you offer about how to effectively coach a multi-generational workforce? And how do you activate the collective potential of a multi-generational workforce?

Varied perspectives create more innovative, sustainable, and adaptable strategies. Experience brings wisdom; inexperience allows for more creativity. Coaching a multi-generational workforce requires acknowledging and encouraging significant differences in perspective and facilitating transparent, trusting, and patient conversations where seemingly oppositional vantage points can connect and create a pathway to success.

You’re referring to emotional intelligence, in a sense. What are two steps every leader can take to demonstrate a higher level of emotional intelligence?

Patience is an often misunderstood or undervalued first step to demonstrating emotional intelligence. Defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “accepting pains or hardships calmly or without complaint”, patience is not about responding well to the speed at which something happens, but the way in which something happens. To be a great leader is to accept responsibility (response-ability) and respond calmly, kindly, and wisely in challenging circumstances. Responding with calm and kindness allows others to see your emotional intelligence.

The second step to demonstrating a higher level of emotional intelligence is to communicate succinctly. A big part of demonstrating emotional intelligence is to showcase self-awareness, and that means having an organized mind. An organized mind can summarize and speak with concision, and we intuitively know when someone’s thoughts are organized from how they communicate with us.

Words matter. And we’re collectively creating a new leadership language right now. What are the most important words for leaders to use now?

“Let me make sure I understand…” Now more than ever, people look to leaders to make them feel heard and acknowledged. When we seek a sense of purpose in our work, we look to be valued and respected for our contributions, and that requires a leader that can validate the thoughtfulness and positive impact of our perspective and efforts before providing feedback on how to improve further. A manager provides feedback, answers, and insights, whereas a leader provides thought-provoking questions that allow for thought partnership that creates a more fun, innovative, and meaningful genius to unfold throughout the team.

I keep inspiring quotes on my desk. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote,” and why does it mean so much to you?

I love the quote, “if it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.” I’ve learned that fulfillment is a byproduct of overcoming meaningful challenges to experience valued transformation. I find it incredibly powerful to remind myself to be grateful for and present with life’s challenges, knowing that working through them (not around them or away from them) is how I get to grow.

Our readers often like to continue the conversation. What’s the best way for readers to connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?

To learn more about cultivating a leadership presence, unleashing your internal authority, and creating the fulfilling and impactful life you want, connect with me on IG @lenasathena ; read my blog and listen to my podcast at

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!