How to Embrace Vulnerability in Leadership

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Coaching Habit" by Michael Bungay Stanier. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is a supportive leadership style? What difference can it make for your team?

Too often, managers control, micromanage, or rescue their employees. In contrast, a supportive leadership style wins your team members’ trust and respect—and it allows them to grow. The Coaching Habit recommends making a habit of asking one particular question.

Read more to learn the question at the heart of a supportive leadership style.

Adopting a Supportive Leadership Style

It’s not unusual for managers to have some sort of rescuer complex—that is, when someone comes to you with a question or a problem, you may feel like it’s your duty to rescue him by finding solutions yourself. This may seem like the most efficient way to address a problem, but your good intentions may create a toxic environment: You breed resentment among team members when you step in instead of trusting them to find solutions, prevent team members from learning and growing, and needlessly add more to your workload.

Break this unhealthy cycle with this simple question: “How can I support you?” This question is at the heart of a supportive leadership style.

Why This Question Is a Good Coaching Habit

This question is effective in two ways: 

  • It helps you exercise self-control by keeping you from jumping into rescue mode.
  • It compels the other person to be clear and direct about what he wants from you. He might realize that he doesn’t need your help at all, freeing you from unnecessary tasks. 

Central to a supportive leadership style, this question trains team members to find solutions by themselves. It also increases team members’ respect for you. One study found that doctors who asked patients general support questions such as, “How can I support you?” got more detailed responses from their patients and received higher evaluation scores, compared with doctors who asked verifying questions such as, “So you’re having stomach problems?”

  • In the workplace, think about how team members’ responses would vary if you asked them how they’d like support instead of narrowing the scope of what they’re allowed to ask for by saying, “So you need help with your next pitch?”

How to Make It a Habit

You might be hesitant to ask this question because you’re worried about opening a can of worms—it might start a difficult conversation you’ve been avoiding or require you to give more help than you’re willing to give. 

Don’t let your discomfort trigger you to shy away from adopting a supportive leadership style and asking about your team members’ needs. Keep in mind that it’s just a question, not a commitment—asking, “How can I support you?” doesn’t mean you’re obligated to say “yes.” 

There are four acceptable responses, based on the situation:

  • “Yes”—when the requested help is necessary and something only you can do
  • “No”—when the help they’re asking for isn’t something you can give
  • “No, but”—when you want to compromise by giving them other choices
  • “Maybe”—which you can phrase as, “Let me think this over.” This gives you more time to determine the best course of action. 

When considering your response, let your goal of coaching your team members’ ability to find good solutions on their own guide you. This practice is a critical aspect of practicing a supportive leadership style.

Adopt a Supportive Leadership Style: Ask This Question

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Michael Bungay Stanier's "The Coaching Habit" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Coaching Habit summary:

  • How to turn coaching into an informal, effective daily habit
  • Why you should practice listening instead of speaking for 10 minutes a day
  • The seven essential questions to ask your team members

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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