Are You Open to Some Coaching?


Let me steal a family story for a leadership lesson.  It’s dangerous being a leadership teacher, because it gives family and staff license to hold me to my “best self” standards.

I was hitting a tennis ball with my 3 kids a couple weeks ago.  Kate and Cece were on one court.  Jack and I on the other.  Jack is in the early stages where the racket flops, the wrist flips, the feet forget to move; it takes a lot to get it together.  I was coaching for all I was worth, trying to keep it down to about three instructions.  As I wandered toward Kate’s court to pick up an errant ball, she asked me The Great Question:  “Are you open to some coaching?”

I learned The Great Question about ten years ago from Denise Stein and Brad Zimmerman, two great executive coaches.  I’d used it with Kate.  And this wasn’t the first time she’d used it with me.  Can you put yourself in my tennis shoes, being asked that question by one of your kids?  In my psychic shoes I had mixed feelings: curiosity, pride (that she was using a lesson I taught her), openness, but also the great mix of pride and defensiveness (as in, “who does she think she is using my lessons on me and trying to tell me how to coach?!?”)

I said, “Yep, I’m open to coaching.”  She said quite simply, “Quit coaching him.”  She was so right.  What I was doing to Jack was what I used to do to that ridiculous Country Sedan I used to drive to the Ford Plant in the 70s, when it conked out:  I’d flood the engine.  Poor guy wasn’t getting enough air; just a lot of gas from dad.

I hit with him again yesterday.  He asked me “are you open to coaching?”  So, I knew where that was going!  “Quit all the coaching?” I asked.  “Yes” he said.  I told him I would only say one thing and that was “good.”  I don’t know about you, but sometimes I need to be reminded to turn off the (well meaning), over-charged critic in order to

Lead with my best self,


  • I love these Reading for Leading emails!!

    Today I got a two-for-one:

    learning “The Great Question”


    learning to lead in an environment where it can be used on me. (Who probably needs it most!!)



  • I would like to occasionally print the “Reading for Leading” to take home discuss with my family, but I find I have to do a lot of fiddling to cut and paste it into a useful format. Could you make a button available to print a PDF? Maybe its there and I am not seeing it?

    • Linda,
      Thanks for bringing this to my attention. We’ll work on it. In the meantime, here’s an easy workaround: block the text, hit control-c for copy, open a word document, hit control v for paste and you’re good to go!

      • Thank you Dan for sending the sincere and thoughtful ideas on the challenges of leadership, informative comments preseneted by diverse group of people and directions for this technically challenged RFL subscriber. This IS a great gift.

  • Dan

    Just a quick note to thank you for the leadership message.
    Met you in Lansing.


    Keep them coming

  • Open for Coaching:

    This reminds me of a time that my son came to visit me in my office. As we were walking from the lobbyto the office, one of my staff made a witty remark and I came back with a quick witticism of my own. Everyone laughed uproariously. As Josh and I continued down the hall he turned to me and said “Dad you’re the boss but you do realize you’re not that funny?”

  • Dan

    I so much enjoy your humore and sensibilities in your Reading for Leading and find many of the things you write about useful in my practice with struggling families and struggling people in the work place. I usually end up smiling by the end of them and I pass them along to many of my friends and family
    Thanks for taking the time to be human


    • Barb,
      Your comment “thanks for taking the time to be human” made me chuckle. I’ve tried taking the time to be divine, but it’s just never worked out for me! Human’s the next best thing 🙂

  • Dan,

    This is exactly the experience shared by Tim Gallwey in some of the best coaching resources I have found. His books (Inner Game of Tennis, Inner Game of Golf, Inner Game of Work – my personal favorite) all focus on different aspects of when we might be called to coach ourselves and others. I use the latter as I orient new employees, and I believe it makes a profound difference in the way we view ourselves while at work. If you (or others) haven’t read them, they will change the way you coach others (and yourself, as you have that internal “coaching” conversation).


  • You’re right on with this one. I think there is a thin line between coaching and control freaking with almost 180 degees in the reaction hoped for.
    Thanks for these sharp on point examples of our so overlooked foibles. Incidentally, your book is great and many of the situations so easy to recognize.

  • Dan,

    That was a great one! Thanks for the reminder –very timely as Mike gets ready to go off to MSU and I think, “but wait, I forgot to tell/coach/nag you about…” Not only is it too late, my “coaching” was probably only marginally effective to begin with. But this is a question maybe you could address — the difference between good coaching and good parenting.

    Aunt V.

    • Veronica,

      That’s a great question. I’d say a parent does more “challenging” than a coach necessarily would. As mom or dad sometimes we push and pull in appropriate ways – especially earlier on – than I generally would as an executive coach. In the latter role, I am listener, mirror, clarifier. But with my kids I am an advocate, sometimes a tough one: I expect a certain level of grades, or savings, or time at the piano. I might hold their feet to the fire via conssequences that I control. The older they get the more of a traditional coach I become, I suppose, allowing them to set most of the terms.

      A parent also ought to create/share a sense of belonging in the world: e.g., What does it mean to be a Mulhern? What are the Sanitate’s all about?
      I had Joe Dumars on my radio show the other day, and it was so clear that he and his 5 brothers all got a sense of what their family values were all about, what they stood for. How wonderful to head of to MSU or FAMU or wherever with a sense that you are someone in the world.
      I love your question. Those are my top-of-mind answers.

  • Oh, boy: Convicted!
    Thanks for the reminder.
    I loved the “not enough air, just a lot of gas from Dad” example.

  • Gotta love those kids! They are frank and true to their thoughts. No embellishments! As adults, we are not always candid and probably less open to realizing that we can always learn a new way.


  • …and my daughter walks in to my home office with her elbows firmly at her sides, her forearms stuck out at 45 degree angles and her palms turned up in a “What were you thinking?” pose. “Dad, I can’t believe you did that. I think you know better.”

    She was right. I know better. I wasn’t thinking. No excuses are going to fly. So I sit there are listen as the hands go from palms up disbelief to fists on hips outrage.

    Do I laugh, or maybe cry, just a bit. She’s right and she’s five.


  • Dan:
    GREAT insight!

    So many times we tell kids what NOT to do. It works better with kids and adults to tell them WHAT to do. And it works even better to just be quiet at times and enjoy the moment.

    I’m constantly amazed at what my 3 year old daughter teaches me when I stop “coaching” her on what we are doing, and start listening to what she is thinking about.

    Mike Gaunt, Superintendent
    Chassell Township Schools

  • Well Dan, this is at the top of the charts – honesty comes from some of the weirdest places – our children. I can relate to this and I know you have growns from hearing it. Leading is living (modeling) what we teach! Thanks Kate. (our future President)

  • I read your column each week, and find myself repeating comments from it regularly, but “Are You Open to Some Coaching” wins as my very favorite. Not only are we big fans of any lesson that comes from tennis, our 3-year old son has 2 parents who are coaches (he tells anyone who will listen, “Dada is a tennis coach, Mama is a people coach”) and not coaching him constantly is something we need to coach ourselves on each day. Many thanks.

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