The Ten Tensions of Coaching Mastery

When I trained first as an executive coach, after we had put a toe in the water of questioning skills, simple processes like the GROW model, and the principles of being non-directive and following the client’s interest, my fellow would-be coaches  and I began to reflect of what we had noticed about the impact of coaching. We noticed that non-directive questioning in the hands of a coach who believed in the potential of the client was incredibly supportive. But we noticed also that being coached exposed our thinking and behaviour to scrutiny: we were, in a sense, being held to account for whether and how what we did reflected what we said we wanted or intended. So coaching was challenging too: supportive and challenging.

A little further into our training, we stood back from what we were learning and understood that in many ways we were unlearning skills like problem solving, speed of decision-making, and giving strong opinions. We were changing our default behaviour and mastering ourselves through the acquisition of technique. We were professionalising our practice as coaches. And then the notion of authenticity emerged – the idea that professional skill could in some way be assimilated so that I could coach in a way that suited me and reflected who I was. This seemed to help explain how coaches with ostensibly the same skills in their tool-bag could work so differently with the same client issue. So somehow I could be both professional and authentic.

But these two pairings – supportive challenge and authentic professionalism – were surely contradictions in terms. It seemed that coaching occupied the realm of the oxymoron.

Some years on, I have become fascinated by what constitutes coaching mastery and how coaches develop it, and have been writing and speaking on this topic since 2015. My growing belief is that the ability to work with and within contradictions, like those described above, is precisely what great coaches do and what distinguishes them from the merely ‘good’.

My research into coaching mastery has taken me into the worlds of art, sport and music as well as more general research into skill acquisition. This is rich territory and it casts a new light on thinking about coaching mastery. I have identified three interwoven paths to mastery, resulting in three spheres of behaviour and wisdom. The first is the path of technique – all the models and stratagems that we learn that provide the spine of our professional practice. The second is the path of self-mastery – becoming more self-aware while unlearning behaviours and ways of thinking that don’t serve the client. This stops us getting in our own way. The third is the path of self-expression. Like accomplished artists, musicians and sports people, it’s what coaches show of themselves that enhances their practice and creates the deep relationships within which the work gets done. [1] This is a dynamic, developmental model. The balance between these three spheres changes over time and it varies in response to who the client is and what they need. Great coaches constantly re-adjust and continue to learn on each of the paths, fuelled by curiosity about their own practice.

There are significant implications here for coaching mastery. The three spheres pull the coach in different directions: towards the dependability of technique, to the client-focused caution of self-management, or to the power of self-expression and presence. The three spheres generate different ways of engaging with the client. These differences create tensions in the coach, in how they work and in their relationship with clients. Somehow the coach needs to work with and within these tensions in their practice.

So what tensions arise? I want to focus on ten that I am aware of in my practice. I’ll start with the issue of authority which arises even before a coach and client start to work together and endures throughout the coaching relationship. The subsequent issues broadly follow a developmental process that many coaches may recognise, requiring ever-deeper self-awareness as a basis for both self-management and self-expression.

  1. Embracing and refusing authority.

The emphasis I place on self-management is not only about maintaining my focus on the client and ensuring I don’t allow my ‘stuff’ to get in the way. It also goes hand-in-hand with my belief that a legitimate and necessary goal for coaching is that the client develops long-term effectiveness and the ability to self-monitor and self-regulate. If the client becomes dependent on me, that is going to subvert that goal.

Long term effectiveness requires clients to experience and believe in their own efficacy. That is in part driven by the power relation between client and coach and by how coaches exercise or embody their authority. But coaches need credibility and authority in order to be invited to work with senior leaders. That can turn on their industry / leadership experience, achievements and their track record as a coach. But to do the work, and help their clients build long-term effectiveness, rather than dependency, the coach cannot exercise authority in the way it is usually manifest in hierarchical organisations, even though there may be unspoken pressure from the client to do so. They do however need to have the authority that comes from strong presence, and their belief in their ability to sit with or walk alongside their client, no matter what the client brings. So they need both to have authority and resist it.

Part of a coach’s wisdom and mastery is to hold authority lightly, to offer it rather than impose it; and to be fine with it being rejected or resisted, or with finding they do not know what they are doing or where a conversation is heading.

Through working in this way, the coach not only demonstrates their confidence and relaxed authority (and so instills confidence in the client), they also model a different way of being with authority.

The remaining nine tensions will appear here each Friday for the next nine weeks. Please let me know what you think at any stage by emailing

[1] A much fuller explanation of this model was published as ‘The Mystery of Coaching Mastery’ in the September 2018 edition of The International Journal of Coaching and Mentoring.

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