Eddie was known for a sharp intellect and unwavering determination. As head of a growing healthy snacks start-up, Eddie had propelled the company from a mere idea to a disruptive force in the industry. But beneath the veneer of success, a storm brewed within the organization.

Though effective in driving results, Eddie’s leadership style was marred by behaviors that mirrored the notorious Four Horsemen of Relationship Apocalypse, as identified by relationship expert Dr. John Gottman: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. These communication styles, lethal to personal relationships, proved equally toxic when leading.

Criticism became Eddie’s unwitting weapon of choice, often attacking team members’ character instead of addressing specific issues. This approach left employees feeling demoralized, questioning their worth and contributions to the team. Under pressure, contempt reared its ugly head in sarcastic remarks and dismissive gestures, further eroding the team’s morale and respect for Eddie. Defensiveness became a reflexive shield, blocking feedback that could help recognize and overcome these self-defeating behaviors. Equally destructive, stonewalling manifested through Eddie’s withdrawal from discussions, especially when feedback was involved, shutting down opportunities for understanding and relationship repair.

The adverse outcomes of these behaviors were palpable. Relationships within the team deteriorated, innovation stagnated as employees hesitated to take risks, and Eddie remained oblivious to leadership blind spots, severely limiting personal and company growth. Turnover spiked, and revenue targets were missed. It wasn’t until a critical intervention by a trusted investor and mentor that Eddie began to see the damage being done.

The Four Horseman Ride into Leadership

The Four Horsemen, originally conceptualized to predict the end of personal relationships, apply with striking relevance to leadership and organizational health. Each Horseman, left unchecked, can lead a leader astray, transforming potential coaching moments into battlegrounds of ego and misunderstanding.

  • Criticism in a leadership context goes beyond constructive feedback, attacking the team member’s character and eroding the trust crucial for a supportive team environment.

  • Contempt creates a hierarchy where the leader views themselves as superior, undermining the team’s morale and the collaborative spirit necessary for innovation.

  • Defensiveness prevents a leader from genuinely considering feedback, viewing it as a personal attack rather than a learning opportunity.

  • Stonewalling obstructs open communication, leaving critical issues unaddressed and stifling the team’s development.

Becoming a coachable leader requires an awareness of these behaviors and a commitment to fostering an environment where feedback is welcomed, not feared. It means prioritizing growth over comfort, relationships over ego.

Breaking the Pattern of Destruction

The journey from recognizing the presence of the Four Horsemen in one’s leadership style to becoming a genuinely coachable leader is one of introspection, humility, and commitment to change. This transformation necessitates a departure from established patterns of communication and interaction, demanding a level of self-awareness and openness to feedback that many driven leaders find challenging.

A coachable leader views feedback not as an attack or distraction but as part of the essential job description to lead. This perspective requires a fundamental shift in mindset, from defending one’s ego to fostering an environment where learning and growth are paramount.

Engaging with Feedback: The Heart of Coachable Leadership

The essence of coachable leadership lies in authentic engagement with feedback. This involves listening to what is being said and actively seeking diverse perspectives and constructive criticism. It means learning to replace the destructive behaviors of the four horsemen: criticism with curiosity, contempt with respect, defensiveness with humility, and stonewalling with engagement.   

A coachable leader recognizes that feedback is not a one-way street but a dialogue—a collaborative process for mutual improvement. This approach fosters a culture of continuous learning, where team members feel valued and empowered to share their ideas and concerns.

Pause Before Forwarding

At this point, you may be already planning on who would benefit from reading this article. But before you do, take a few minutes to reflect on to what degree the horsemen may be creeping into your leadership moments. We all have a bit of Eddie in us, especially under stress and with certain people. To embark on the path to becoming a more coachable leader, consider reflecting on the following questions:

1. How do I perceive and react to feedback? Do you see it as an attack or an opportunity for growth? Your reaction sets the tone for how feedback is viewed within your team.

2. Am I fostering an environment of open and honest communication?   Consider whether your leadership style encourages your team to speak freely and share their thoughts and ideas.

3. How do I approach mistakes—both mine and those of others?   Are mistakes seen as failures or as valuable learning opportunities? How you handle mistakes can significantly influence your team’s willingness to take risks and innovate.

4. What impact am I having on the health of my team?   Reflect on whether your actions and communication style contribute to building a culture of trust, respect, and collaboration.

5. Who can be my trusted advisor and supportive coach as I consider these questions? Don’t go it alone when reflecting on these questions. Find someone who you respect and who will provide the wisdom, support, and accountability to honestly explore your leadership impact and transformation journey.

A Works-in-Progress Leader

Eddie’s journey toward becoming a coachable leader has been filled with both revelations and obstacles. Recognizing the detrimental impact of the Four Horsemen in moments of stress was an essential first step, yet overcoming these behaviors proved more daunting than initially thought. Attempts to embrace feedback and cultivate open communication were not always consistent, leading to only incremental improvement.  Progress rarely follows a linear path, but Eddie’s commitment to this journey remains strong, and the team feels hopeful.

Taking the reins of coachable leadership means saddling up new habits of curiosity, respect, humility, and engagement.