Autocratic and democratic coaching styles
Coaching offers the benefit of being able to select a coach whose style aligns with your needs. There are a variety of coaching styles available, and while no official list exists, the Life Coach Directory’s guide provides a comprehensive selection. Two of the most directly opposed coaching styles are autocratic and the democratic styles. What are they? And which is right for you? Let’s take a deeper look.
What is the democratic style of coaching?
This is the most commonly used coaching style. Indeed, some coaches would say that all coaching should be democratic. It fundamentally believes in the equal partnership of the client and coach, and the client’s expertise in their own life. A democratic coach will question the client to help them draw out their thoughts and ensure they articulate for themselves the best path forward. They will rarely share their own opinion or tell someone what to do; the focus is on ‘ask, don’t tell’.
This style has many advantages - it encourages the client’s autonomy and independence. It ensures they know they can think for themselves rather than feeling reliant on the coach. The answers that come from within someone are far more motivating than external suggestions from others, and probably better than external suggestions. You, as the coachee, are the expert in your life and the whole situation, so your answers will usually be right for you.
It is, however, slower than the autocratic style, as it will normally require a lot of discussion before you crystallise your plans. And in situations where you lack expertise, you may benefit from a coach who is willing to be more explicit in suggestions and recommendations than the democratic approach would normally recommend.
What is the autocratic style of coaching?
Autocratic coaching is explicit in dictating the client’s actions and next steps, with little input from the client or team. This style is found most often in sports coaching, where there has been most research - for example, it is useful for rapid clarity, or improving team predictability. It is probably everyone’s classic image of a coach - a red-faced guy in a striped shirt, blowing a whistle and yelling at his sports team, in ‘tell, don’t ask’ mode.
It probably doesn’t sound very attractive - but it does serve a useful purpose. Outside sports and coaching, an autocratic style of leadership can have benefits. For example, according to this Forbes article, President Lyndon Johnson was a good example of effective authoritarian leadership: when a senator protested “Rome wasn’t built in a day", another replied, “Lyndon Johnson wasn’t the foreman on that job”. And, this style can be useful in time-pressured situations - for example, in hospital emergency rooms.
So, the autocratic approach is useful in situations where time is short and expertise-based solutions are needed. Hence its popularity in sports coaching: during a match, you need to tell players what to change, rather than ask them about what they think needs to change.
However, if you think an autocratic coach sounds appealing - ask yourself whether it’s for the coach’s specific expertise, or because you prefer to be told a clear path of action. Many people find it easier to be told what to do, rather than work it out for themselves via coaching questions. But preferring instructions is probably not the best reason to choose an autocratic coach. You’ll be relying on their instructions and thinking, rather than deepening your self-belief and confidence. In particular, when it comes to the more personal, emotional areas, an autocratic coach will be of little use: you will always be more expert in yourself than they are - and deep inner change rarely comes from someone else’s orders.
Blending both styles
Some coaches can blend both autocratic and democratic modes, in a way that will work for you. The sports coach who yells rapid instructions mid-match, will - hopefully - take time with players afterwards to help them really understand what was working and what wasn’t.
The autocratic approach is essentially ‘consulting’ rather than ‘coaching’ - you’re relying on someone else’s expertise, rather than your own. This can be useful if it’s an area where you lack expertise, and are under time pressure to improve. For example, a nutritionist coach, or a business scaling coach, would have specific expertise to bring to you. Most coaches who have this ‘consultant’ expertise should be able to ‘change hats’, and alternate between sharing their expertise, and enabling you to work out yourself how best to use the knowledge.
As a practical example, I personally blend consulting and coaching occasionally when I work in both roles within a client’s company. I might wear my consultant hat for the start of engagement - troubleshooting, analysing, and recommending changes. Then I make an explicit change to ‘coaching’ and work with individuals to help them thrive through the changes and fulfil their potential.
Within a coaching session, if something relevant to the ‘consulting’ side comes up, sometimes I put it aside to come back to it later in a separate, non-coaching meeting; sometimes I spend a minute or two giving my consultant-type advice before going back into coaching questions. If someone asks for my consultant opinion during coaching, I’ll often challenge them to answer the question themselves first, before sharing my consultancy perspective. I enjoy consulting - I’ve done it for decades - but I’ve long since acknowledged that the best and biggest changes come from within, from the democratic partnership between client and coach.
Which should I choose?
If your area of interest for coaching is related to specific expertise you don’t have - e.g. sports or skill, a business problem, or a personal area like nutrition; anything where you could equally well call the coach a consultant, then an ‘autocratic’ coach will probably be helpful in rapidly sharing knowledge and planning the next steps.
For pretty much everything else - a democratic style is likely to be more helpful. And even if you do want an autocratic coach, ensuring they’re able to use the democratic style as well is likely to give you the best results.