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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Transformational Coaching in 3-D Leadership

Transformational Coaching in 3-D Leadership

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

At our local soccer association’s field this past week, I sat-on-edge for the Donlan family’s most riveting match. Our son Sean (9) and daughter Katelyn (8) had their first-ever team face-off.  As parents, we tried to keep things friendly, amidst big brother’s big talk.
            The game was quick, intense, and hard-hitting, as little kids’ soccer goes.  Fifty-five minutes had passed, and much to our surprise, Katelyn’s team was wiping the field with Sean’s. 
They were up 4 – 1 … with only five minutes ‘til the whistle.
Not a pleasureful ride home, we thought.
Sean, typically a more reserved defensive player, was positioned outside on offense – “right wing.”  To our elation, he exploded into action, kicking three, fact-action goals in the remaining minutes of play. 

The whistle blew; it was over.
A tie.

We couldn’t have been more delighted, proud of both kids and happy for Sean’s personal circumstance.  Yet, I couldn’t help but thinking, Where the heck did that come from!?!

            I pondered Sean’s development as a player this past year.  Formerly content to run with the pack, he was now stepping-up with good ball handling, a smooth tempo, and targeted contribution.  Admittedly, he’s not often a clutch player; what we witnessed in Donlan vs. Donlan was really unique.   Yet something special was afoot. 
Thinking of Coach’s decision to trust Sean on offense with a game gone awry, I was confident that he knew something about Sean, team chemistry, the game, and the dynamic that existed on the field more deeply than we.  I also noticed that when he made his typical player rotation late in the game, he didn’t pull Sean, as scheduled. 
Over the course of the season, Coach has shown an ability to read those on the team who are sometimes apprehensive, yet need opportunity, even when they don’t know they want it.  Coach knows the players better than they know themselves, at times … bringing about a healthy transformation in those who follow his lead, certainly in my son. 

Coach knows how to lead and when to act.  He seems to do this three-dimensionally, as I’ll share shortly.

Can school leaders accomplish the same?  Can they bring about a transformation in others, even at times when their followers or teammates do not recognize their own potential?  Can school leaders foster clutch play when the stakes are high, inviting followers to step beyond prior performance?  Can they lead “3-D”?

The notion of leader-as-coach is not really anything new, yet the notion of transformational coaching in 3-D leadership may very well be.

The Ohio State Studies, beginning in the 1950’s, offered researchers quadrants of leadership behavior on a matrix with two axes: The X-axis including those behaviors in which leaders initiated structure, and the Y-axis including those behaviors that more of consideration.  Leaders in the upper-right-hand quadrant were found to exhibit high degrees of both behaviors, and thus provided some initial descriptions of what some of us have later referred to as coach-like leadership (Northouse, 2004).   
Around the same time, The Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan was studying leader behavior, particularly as it had an impact on small groups.  Researchers made the distinction of production orientation and employee orientation in leadership.  At first, these orientations were envisioned to be on two separate ends of the same continuum, with a leader leaning toward one orientation or the other; however, as studies continued, these orientations were envisioned as independent entities so that leaders could be oriented toward both at the same time (Northouse, 2004).
            Blake & Mouton in the 1960’s provided a managerial grid, in which they noted a leader’s concern for production along the X-axis and a concern for people along the Y-axis.  Those in the top right quadrant were termed, Team Leaders, getting us closer to this notion of coach (Northouse, 2004).
Hersey & Blanchard wrote of situational leadership in the 1980s, including the notion of a leader’s directive behavior on the X-axis and supportive behavior on the Y-axis, with those found in the upper-right-hand quadrant known to have a coaching style.  Of great value in their model was the consideration of followers in determining the type of leadership style or behavior to be employed (Northouse, 2004). 
Whitaker, Miller, & Donlan (2014) offer their own conceptual model of leadership, illustrating through the sketch-work of a new principal, a leader’s concern for accountability along the X-axis and concern for a school’s climate along the Y-axis. They note that those leaders in the upper-right-hand quadrant who employ a both/and approach to their school leadership are Pathfinders.

These contributors have offered our profession helpful and practical models of leader-as-coach.  Yet, can we deepen these models?  Can we make what is two-dimensional, three-dimensional?

We can, by looking beyond a leader’s behavior as that which rests inside a given quadrant of any theorist’s two-dimensional matrix, or beyond a leader’s behavior that moves between and among the quadrants, toward leadership that can drill deep in a three-dimensional sense, no matter where positioned.  This ability of leaders to drill deep is indicative of the leader-as-coach’s scientific knowledge or visceral intuition about those on the team that runs deeper than the norm. 

It is transformational coaching in 3-D leadership.

Transformational coaching in 3-D leadership’s first level of depth is a coach’s ability to read what team members offer, such as interpreting their words, tones, gestures, postures, and facial expressions. Based upon these interpretations (situational analyses), action is taken.  The next level of depth is the coach’s ability to consider what people have done in the past and whether or not this is congruent with present circumstance. A deeper level yet is when a coach envisions what people have the potential to do, given present cues, past behavior, trends in performance, and current context with a slight degree of unpredictability.  Deepening circumstance even further includes a coach’s intuitive understanding of the human condition and much that is probable, given myriad circumstances of unpredictability and complexity, along with a bit of metaphysical happenstance. 

Our best leaders-as-coaches invite their teams into transformation by way of a three-dimensional understanding of themselves and others, deepening through action the relevance and impact of frameworks in general literature.  They are practitioners building theory inductively as they lead … as they transform.  In such, they are creating stepping-stones toward heightened efficacy in K-12 schools. 


Northouse, P. G. (2004). Leadership: Theory and practice (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Whitaker, T., Miller, S., & Donlan, R. (2014). The secret solution: How one principal discovered the path to success. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Dr. Ryan Donlan strives weekly to unpack the layers of leadership in creating better opportunities in K-12 schools and higher education. If you have had a story regarding an inspirational, three-dimensional coach-as-leader, will you please consider giving Dr. Donlan a call at (812) 237-8624 or writing him at  He would very much be interested in hearing from you.

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