If coaching is done right, there will be a relationship developed that will result in the coachee’s willingness to share anything and everything. I can imagine coaching sessions where a coachee admits addiction, an extramarital affair, or talks about fears and concerns, and we need to be prepared for that.

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 Steve Ingalls.

Stephen A. Ingalls is the president and CEO of Catalyzer, a world-class leadership training program that combines rigorous leadership study with tailored, high-energy programs delivered by a cadre of accomplished leadership practitioners. Mr. Ingalls leads the organization’s program management, curriculum development, and program execution efforts. Prior to joining Catalyzer in 2011, Mr. Ingalls led and directed operations ranging from climate research in Antarctica and Greenland to attack helicopter deployments throughout the United States, Europe, and Korea. A 1982 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Ingalls holds a Master of Science in Engineering Management from the University of Kansas, a Master of Military Art and Science from the United States Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, and a Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is a former Instructor and Assistant Professor of Aerospace Engineering at West Point and an Instructor of Tactics at the Command and General Staff College. Today, his greatest joys are his marriage to Cara, mentoring his children into adulthood, and serving gleefully as Elijah’s, Adalynn’s, and Silas’ grandfather.

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 was 15 or 16 years old, I remember a family friend opening Burger King Number 1390 in Columbia, Missouri. I already had a morning paper route, but hoped to find something that didn’t require me to get up that early, so I asked him to hire me. I recall walking over to him after church on a Sunday morning and in passing I asked, “Hey, Jerry, any chance I could join the French Frying Legion?” He said, “Sure, come with me.” I went to work that afternoon, which was the beginning of what I did not realize was going to be a journey that ultimately resulted in my mastery of all things Burger King in that small, franchised restaurant.

At 18, I was promoted to shift manager. That opportunity allowed me to supervise people that were older and more experienced than I was, including friends and a girlfriend. That girlfriend did not survive my managerial leadership debut, but I highlight it because I think that experience ultimately helped get me to West Point. I believe it highlighted some leadership abilities that added depth to my scholarship ability and sports interests.

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’m not sure that I agree with Mr. Maxwell completely. The reason I hesitate a bit has to do with “know the way.” It goes back to the command-and-control way of thinking. There’s an outdated notion that a leader needs to know everything that the people that he or she supervises knows how to do. In my own organization, even in our group of twelve or fifteen, a number of people who work with us don’t know every detail about what I do, nor do I know every detail about how they do what they do. I do think that a leader needs to be cognizant enough to know what they don’t know so that they can surround themselves with others who complement them. Ultimately, they don’t have to know everything about everything to be an effective leader.

Now, “go the way” is essential. This notion is ignored all too often in contemporary leadership, but is a hallmark of military leadership. Simon Sinek wrote a book several years ago called, “Leaders Eat Last.” It was driven by his experience having spent some time with Army and Marine Corps units, and what he noted was that when the unit went to have a meal together, the leaders would float to the back of the line. That’s been my experience since I was an 18-year-old at West Point. The idea is that if I am not a smart enough leader to have enough food prepared, then I’m the one that’s going to go hungry, not the person that’s in the front of the line. My early days in the Army were shaped substantively by Vietnam veterans, and that was one lesson that could be attributed to any generation of military veterans.

Finally, “show the way” is imperative among leaders. We have this conversation regularly with the groups that we meet with when they’re trying to wrap their heads around exactly what leadership is. Inevitably, it comes down to vision.

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

First, I would define the difference between a leader and a manager. They’re not the same. In John Kotter’s seminal article in Harvard Business Review entitled, “What Leaders Really Do,” he differentiates the two in terms of what leaders focus on, which is people and doing the right thing. Managers typically focus on things, and doing things right. That’s the seminal difference between those two.

People think they grow out of management to leadership, or they grow out of direct leadership to management, but both skill sets are required at every level of seniority to run organizations effectively. As a leader, you can never escape those process-oriented, thing-oriented things you must do. I just finished looking at my own balance sheet. That’s a management activity. Now, considering the balance sheet as an example of the impact on the organization’s effectiveness and who we need to hire and whether we can afford to hire and those kinds of things, that’s a leadership activity.

As for coaching, former Dallas Cowboys’ Coach Tom Landry once said that coaches allow individuals to see things about themselves that they would never explore nor uncover by themselves, to take them to places they never imagined that they could go. To be effective coaches, leaders must be emotionally intelligent and have terrific levels of interpersonal accountability. Coaches are terrific communicators and are humble and listen to the feedback from the people that they’re coaching. That seems antithetical to some of the examples of coaching that you might see, but coaches ultimately listen, and I can think of a dozen or more examples where that’s appropriate. Just watch any NFL sideline.

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?

To be better coaches, leaders need a framework or philosophy for coaching. I find it kind of hysterical when organizations promote somebody to their first supervisory job, throw them a radio and a clipboard, give them a figurative pat on the back, and say something to the effect of, “Get out there and coach them up” without giving them the foggiest idea what it looks like to coach or lead. We need to do a better job of preparing our young leaders to coach. If you don’t have a framework, you’re counting on them doing only what they’ve experienced or been told to do, and you better hope it was effective.

Apart from giving your people some professional development training, we’ve got to stop promoting people that are just not going to be good coaches anyway. Coaching and leadership go hand in hand, so promoting the best salesman that you have on the team to the head of sales, and therefore the leader of sales, just because they were the best at selling does not mean they’re going to be the best at leading salesmen.

Companies have a bad habit of taking the smartest or most skilled person in the room and putting them in charge of the team. We take the gifted, talented, functionally unique humans, and we put them in charge of other people. It’s disastrous. We’ve got to stop promoting people without the skill or ability interpersonally. If someone is not a gifted coach, don’t promote that person to a leadership role. We’ve also got to stop promoting the jerks in our organizations that are undermining what we’re trying to get done.

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?

One of the things they made us memorize when I was at West Point was Schofield’s definition of discipline. And it goes something like this, “The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle, is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an army. It is possible to give instructions and commands in such a manner and tone of voice that inspires in the other an intense desire to obey, while the opposite manner and tone of voice cannot fail to create strong resentment and a desire to disobey.”

So, let me be clear, I’m not suggesting this is about being nice. It’s about being emotionally intelligent. Unfortunately, Western culture seems to hold up jerks as the exemplar of what is good. We hold them up and we give them noble titles to suggest they are fierce. What we’re doing is masking the fact with some glorious flower words that they’re jerks, and they are beating the daylights out of their people. They are not developing their individuals in healthy ways. There are notorious examples. Lest it sound like I’m casting stones, many of us, including me, have been there. But there does come a time, hopefully, when we wake up and choose to do it differently.

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?”

So, the first absolute imperative in coaching is remembering that I’m leading five or six or fifteen discrete individuals and I need to treat them individually. You coach someone to do their best work by understanding that you cannot lead everyone in the same manner.

The second mistake that I think we make in coaching is that we presume that we know what people want to do without asking them. If we ever asked, “What do you want to do?” And then when they give us an answer we didn’t expect, we are sometimes frustrated that they don’t see the same path for themselves that we do. We should expect them to look out for themselves, and what we’re hoping to find are where those individual interests align with the organization.

The third imperative of coaching is to do so with an inquisitive, intellectually curious mindset. Rather than presume you have the answers, ask questions instead. It’s not about giving guidance; it’s guiding them toward discovering their own solutions.

Fourth, coaching involves work. If you end up leaving a coaching session feeling like you just had a big group hug, you’re not having a coaching session. As a coach, I should have at least prepared or be knowledgeable enough to have some thoughts on where you should go as I hear you lay out where your struggles are and what you want to work on. I’ve witnessed too many coaching sessions where people leave and there’s no actual work done. You just said, well, let’s get back together in a month. Great. Well, what did we get accomplished? I don’t know, but great.

Fifth, if coaching is done right, there will be a relationship developed that will result in the coachee’s willingness to share anything and everything. I can imagine coaching sessions where a coachee admits addiction, an extramarital affair, or talks about fears and concerns, and we need to be prepared for that.

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?

Start by understanding the problem you’re trying to solve, which is often how to recruit and retain individuals of different generations. Don’t send a templated message that suggests everyone respond to the same words, as what attracts and retains different generations is completely different. Additionally, Boomers should be prepared to teach and resist rolling their eyes at younger professionals. Millennials and Gen Zs, on the other hand, should exercise patience and be prepared to focus on career paths for the next five years. This seems imminently reasonable, and seniors would be well served to think through that plan.

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?

  1. Listen. Leaders should actively listen to their team members, colleagues, and other stakeholders. They should give their full attention and avoid interrupting or dismissing the perspectives of others. By doing so, leaders can gain insights, build trust, and foster better relationships.
  2. Be humble. Leaders should be open to learning from others, admit their mistakes, and acknowledge the contributions of their team members. Avoid being arrogant, dismissive, or condescending. By demonstrating humility, leaders build strong relationships with their team members, inspire loyalty, and create a more collaborative and positive work environment.

A mentor of mine several years ago, Lou Pepper, who is arguably the most emotionally intelligent human that I’ve ever met, shared with me that hiring people smarter than myself is essential. He also believed in kindness, so his exception was that you hire people smarter than you, so long as they are not jerks. This takes humility since hiring somebody smarter than you could arguably lead them to take your job one day. That’s a scary proposition for some people, but if you look at it another way, in fact, we hope they do take our jobs one day. Then we can keep moving forward ourselves.

As for jerks, in my judgment, that attitude is the antithesis of emotional intelligence. There is a time and place to be harsh and negative, maybe even loud and argumentative, but it should be contextually appropriate. So, taking the lead from Mr. Pepper, hire people smarter than you so long as they’re not jerks.

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

It’s not about specific words, but rather about defining and understanding what words like leadership, accountability, responsibility, culture, and engagement mean inside any given organization. It’s important for leaders to have a shared understanding of these concepts and to be able to communicate them effectively.

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

Teddy Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena.” It’s a piece of a larger speech that Roosevelt delivered to the Sorbonne in 1910, I believe, the title of which is “Citizenship in a Republic.” The quote means a lot to me because, frankly, life and leadership are hard. Among my triggers are the people that sit comfortably in the stands and point their fingers at those of us who are giving it a whirl, “marred by the sweat and the blood and the tears and the stain.” We’re trying, they’re not, but they’re sure quick to point out how we’re doing it wrong. Roosevelt is calling that out, and that’s why it means a lot to me.

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

The best way to stay up-to-date on my latest revelations and thoughts is on LinkedIn. I’m trying to get better at sharing more, but you can find me if you search “Stephen Ingalls, or Catalyzer.”

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