• Allan J. Mucerino

UNLOCK THE POWER OF LANGUAGE WHEN LEADING LEADERS

The question is: What is tired and overwhelmed? The answer is, in the spirit of recently deceased Jeopardy host Alex Trebek: It's a common condition among new school administrators (and some seasoned administrators too). I always ask my mentees to take 60 seconds of reflection time when we kick off a coaching session and then describe how they feel. Lowering the affective filter and releasing negative emotions sets the tone for a positive experience for both members of the cooperative. It builds trust. How deep do you want to go? I like my mentees to bare their professional souls. After all, the soul is illuminated by the color of its thoughts.

As a certified CASC coach, I work with multiple administrators who are clearing their administrative services credential through Riverside County or CSU, Fullerton. Most are in their first, second, or third year of administration. As a superintendent, I work with everyone in my organization. I believe everyone possesses a desire to lead, and everyone is capable of leading too. Leading leaders perpetuates the profession. Systemic leadership coaching builds leadership capacity. The traits may be mimicked. The characteristics developed. And the strategies adopted. A mentee, then, will not only gain from the end result (solving a problem of practice), but from the process too. Coaching is a key element of a performance management system (see my model here).

I am a leadership coach because I believe in leadership. It matters.

Borrowing from Costa & Garmston, and numerous others, I approach coaching as I do life, intentionally. Good intentions put a mentee's mind at ease. Consider it the right mindset for learning, like a child wrapped in the warmth of a safe and nurturing learning space. Without a safe environment, it's nearly impossible to create a shared inquiry space. But once that space is secured, the process is set up for success. Consider it foundational to the overall process.


The structure of leadership coaching is built on two elements: the art of questioning and the art of listening. The language of questioning is rooted in ancient Greece. It's Socratic by nature. I only ask open-ended questions designed to stimulate deep reflection and critical analysis. Then I carefully listen, actively, with empathy and awareness.

As Fifth Discipline author and organizational learning guru Peter Senge has written: effective coaching is not about the answers; it’s about the questions.

It's easier said than done, however, because many coaches have a tendency to advise and fix. As an indicator, if a question starts with "I" the coach is probably advising, clarifying, or validating. While well intentioned, it will not cultivate an atmosphere of self-discovery that engenders self-directedness, which is the ultimate goal of coaching. Coaches also may struggle to listen effectively, planning what they're going to say next instead of engaging actively.


Take a chapter out of the book of mental self-governance theory and help mentees develop an intellectual style, or way of thinking, that organizes the internal chaos and clutter that they're likely experiencing, especially if they're brand new to administration or to a position. How does a coach do that? It's not as complicated as you might think. Following a simple list of do's and don'ts is the best way to get started.

  • Use tentative language stems to start your sentences (including words that prompt, such as might, maybe, and possibly). Don't start a sentence with I.

  • Use an approachable tone and a nurturing voice. Don't inflect in a manner that belies the words your voice is messaging.

  • Use syntax and structure that is plural in form to signal the mentee's brain that there are an expansive breadth of possible responses. Don't constrain the capacity for choice.

  • Use positive presuppositions in your questions and comments by embedding affirmations of capability and empowerment. Don't heighten the affective filter and allow negativity to sabotage the process.

Unlocking the power of language is the key to a successful mentor/mentee relationship. It's probably the key to all relationships, for that matter. After all, language is power.