Coaching and leading in complex and challenging times

Published by Dave Palfreyman on 13 Jan 2021

Leadership in challenging times is as important as it is difficult, especially in this current unprecedented time. Taking a coaching approach to leadership does not have to be formal and lengthy, but the benefits are well worth it. I was told several years ago that leading is easy when everyone is happy but as soon as it starts getting a bit tense, when the situation is no longer ‘normal’ and you and the people around you are getting fractious, that’s the point when people need help the most support.

A theme that often comes through when I’m coaching is “I’m stuck” or “I don’t know what I should do.” This often leads to “I can’t,” and “It’s out of my control.” This is concrete thinking. It is a binary yes/no thinking process, which is sometimes referred to as catastrophic thinking. It can be difficult to balance our thinking and move into being solution focused. Considering that, here are a few coaching points to consider:

  1. Always assume that change is possible – the person you are talking to has within themselves the potential to change their situation, what we do as a leader or a coach is – through asking a range of open ended creative questions – open the metaphorical door of change and give them the opportunity to step through.
  2. What is the alternative or balanced view point? – when I feel frustrated because I’ve been repeating the same thing over and over and it’s not working, what do I need to do differently to make it work? If I put the green hat of creativity on from De Bono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats” and ask myself “if I tried something different – what might happen?”
  3. Emotional awareness – what are you feeling and what are others feeling too? When others feel anxious, scared, stuck, angry and happy, they radiate those feelings and as humans we are pretty good at unconsciously picking up those emotional vibes. Recognising what we are feeling and what others around us a feeling are part of having good levels of emotional intelligence. Recognising these feelings and being able to manage them and the emotions of those around you are valuable skills to have at your disposal.
  4. Control the anxiety and look confident – when we feel anxious, we become very focused and this can stop us thinking of alternatives and planning. Here our Lizard brain is trying to take over and it is very effective at pushing the other parts of our brain out of the driving seat. To keep Lizard brain’s hands off the steering wheel try ‘S.T.O.P’ – a useful mnemonic in these situations. STOP for a moment to gather your thoughts, THINK about what you are trying to achieve, organise your OPTIONS, and PLAN your next steps. When we have a plan we have focus and direction, then everything feels a bit less scary. This will help us feel more confident, and when we’re confident our team will feel more confident too.
  5. Communicate well – When the lizard brain is the driving seat, or we feel unsure of what’s happening, it is all too easy – natural even – to focus on the job in hand, invariably the first thing to fall by the wayside is communication, yet this is one of the biggest things we should focus on. Your staff are looking to you for leadership and guidance but if we don’t communicate effectively, or even communicate at all, they don’t know what needs to be done and will feel anxious too. Ask yourself when communicating, how this might be received by others. We see in the news that ambiguous messages can lead to confusion, fear and even anger.


Whitmore, J. (2009) Coaching for Performance (4th Ed)

Goleman, D. (1996) Emotional Intelligence

De Bono, E. (1985) Six thinking hats

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