One of the best things about being a leadership coach is the ability to see the lightbulbs go off, those “ah-ha” moments that truly show me how a client has grasped a new concept, idea, or reached a new conclusion of their own.

Taking clients through a path to shed light on their own successes, the application of new skills, and the decisions they have made, not only creates lightbulb moments that are exciting, it also can lead to moments of truth. There can be times where honesty and challenges to preconceived ideas get put on the table for clients to face.

Coaching is not easy. Sometimes I have to be the bad guy. Ask any hurdler, sprinter, football player or any athlete if they have ever hated their coach, or thought their coach was mean: they will invariably respond yes, at some point they thought that was true. And it is. Running another round of sprints at the end of a long practice, being forced to fess up to a mistake or subpar performance, and working hard through physical and emotional pain to get the best result, can feel unjust, or mean, in the moment.

For leaders, honesty, hard questions, and having to look in the mirror and face the truth about shortcomings can feel uncomfortably personal, or even a bit hostile.

Over the years, many labels have been applied to coaching that are unrelated to athletics—soft, mushy, touchy/feely. I am here to tell you, that is not the case. I work with executive level leaders who want more from the skills they have, are high potentials that need some skill-building, or business owners/leaders who are looking to accelerate the growth of their company and need to find a way to lead differently than they have in the past. There’s nothing mushy about it.

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The flip side to being the “mean coach” is the respect that honesty brings. When I work with a client, I’m not there to hold hands. I’m there as an outsider who can offer perspective, honesty, and sometimes the hard facts that so often become invisible to people who are entrenched in the situation.

A coaching session is a safe space for clients to share, brainstorm and even vent. Here is a recent example (that I have permission to share):

In a coaching session with a client of 6 months, he sat in his chair facing the 8 flipcharts of notes we had created in a little under 30 minutes. When faced with all the evidence of why he thought his business wasn’t hitting its metrics, he saw a common thread emerge. This thread was a bottleneck created by one specific team member who refused to delegate, needed to control all parts of this aspect of work, and would consistently miss deadlines and blame the rest of the team.

The client had had numerous conversations about this problem with me and the individual in attempts to help him see his downfall. There had already been turnover in his area as well as evidence that his team members were disengaged. I had to ask the hard questions:

  • What are your choices here?
  • What are you willing to risk if you allow this to continue?
  • If you don’t do something, who will?

My goal with this line of questions was to get him to realize that he, as the owner, had the responsibility to the business, the rest of the team, and to their clients, to make a change. He needed to decide what this change would be. Looking at his face in the moment, I thought the man was going to be sick. He said he hadn’t realized that the real roadblock was himself and his failure to deal with that specific team member. That was the lightbulb.

I pushed my client because I knew that he was holding back.

I could tell that it was not a pleasant conversation for him to have, but he hired me to help him get to the root cause of his issues—a job I take pride in doing well.

The moment of insight that he experienced, and the results that followed, were worth an uncomfortable conversation.

So now, when people ask me what type of coach I am, I tend to say honest, challenging, engaging, and mean. I explain to clients that it’s all for their own benefit, and part of why they pay me in the first place.

If clients came to me as a coach for praise and optimism with little reality, they would call me a cheerleader. And while cheerleading is part of my job sometimes, it’s far from the whole picture. Besides, I’d rather be the brutally honest, sometimes perceived as mean, uncompromising coach, that leads her clients to the championship.

Are you a “mean” coach? Share your story with us via LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.

Mean Coach