Coachability is the willingness to be corrected and to act on that correction. When we are coachable, we are prepared to be wrong. We can withstand a high degree of candor. We are willing to let others evaluate — and perhaps even plumb the depths of our performance because we understand that the journey of personal development cannot be traveled alone. We understand that our first fiduciary obligation is to ourselves, and that obligation is to gain accurate self-knowledge and then take the next step of progress. For the highly coachable, feedback, as the chalkboard aphorism goes, really is the breakfast of champions.
Thoreau observed, “It is as hard to see oneself as to look backwards without turning around.” I’m inclined to agree, because I observe many leaders who are in diapers in their understanding of themselves.
The uncoachable seem incurious. Privately, they are either smug or insecure, which makes them dodgy and impenetrable. They don’t want to touch the cold stone of reality. They bristle at unvarnished feedback. They are too sure of themselves to listen. They travel down avenues of self-importance or self-doubt. Those on the pride side of the line want to be the only noodle in the soup. They want people to be lap dogs of validation. They refuse to acknowledge that there are people wise in perception all around who have the precious gift of guidance to give. They can’t bear the thought of bad press or the possibility that someone might find a cockroach behind the wall. They prefer polite society, cocktail-party talk, fulsome praise and a fabled reality. They don’t speak truth to the power of themselves. The juice is not worth the squeeze.
I have come to the conclusion that coachability is often the single most important factor that separates good leaders from great ones. I see quite a few good leaders. I see precious few great ones. Why? Is it intellect or talent? Is it passion or drive? I think much of it has to do with an unwillingness to receive guidance and direction. Very often executives believe they have graduated from the ranks of those who need help. It’s often that belief that is the final obstacle that separates individuals from achieving their true potential. I have yet to meet a person who didn't need coaching, and I stand first in line. Those who think they don't are dangerously mistaken.
As a term, coachability has not officially entered the lexicon of American usage. But it should and perhaps it will at some point, because coachability is not just teachability. It’s not just a willingness to learn. It’s a willingness to unlearn and change. Coachability is a moral capacity that allows a person to accept feedback, acknowledge faults, limitations and deficiencies, and act on the new information. Coachability is a relevant concept everywhere — at home, in the workplace and even on the battlefield.
Gen. David Petraeus explains, “On every bit of guidance I give, the last instruction is: Learn and adapt. We also work very hard on being first to the truth. That’s a powerful admonition. First of all, we’re going to tell the truth. We’re not going to put lipstick on pigs. We’re going to be absolutely 100 percent forthright and brutally honest — with not just ourselves and with our subordinates and our superiors, but with the press.”
Leadership is indeed a process of self-discovery, but it must be aided self-discovery. We all have blind spots that can seriously impair our performance. Or we may have glaring weaknesses that we can’t overcome on our own. King George VI suddenly ascended the throne after the scandalous abdication of his brother. Thankfully, the monarch was coachable enough to seek out help for his debilitating speech impediment. That mixture of courage and humility was the key to his success.
In his masterpiece “Recessional,” Rudyard Kipling expresses the boastful pride and mournful regret that come from a nation’s rise and fall. Kipling could see that Victorian England would fall into inevitable decline, as is the fate of all empires. Yet he was not mourning the loss of empire, but a more serious loss — the ability to be coachable, to learn, unlearn and change.
“The tumult and the shouting dies; the captains and the kings depart: Still stands thine ancient sacrifice, an humble and a contrite heart. Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget, lest we forget!"
Timothy R. Clark, Ph.D., is an author, international management consultant, former two-time CEO, Fulbright Scholar at Oxford University and Academic all-American football player at BYU. His latest two books are "The Leadership Test" and "Epic Change." E-mail: [email protected]