Leading With Support and Challenge

Most of us perform at our best when we have the right mixture of support and

challenge and this, more than perhaps at any other time, is a good time for us as

leaders to reflect on how we lead in this VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex,

Ambiguous) world.

Take a look at the following matrix, taken from Ian Day’s and John Blakey’s book,

“Challenging Coaching”.

As leaders we best provide for our teams and individuals when we create a

culture of high support and high challenge. To have support without challenge is

to encourage ‘cosy club’ and to provide challenge without support creates too

much stress; both scenarios lower performance.

It is worth mentioning that challenge comes with trust and the more trust you

have as a leader, the more challenge you will be able to provide without entering

the over-stressed quadrant.

As a leader you may find yourself and your team in any of the four quadrants at

different times, but what is important is to be aware of the four quadrants and

where you are as a team.

Where is your team currently? Where are individual’s currently? Are they

experiencing cosy club, inertia, stress or high performance?

I would encourage you to make a note of your answers to the questions asked in

this blog and take some time to reflect on them. As a coach I believe it is in

asking questions that great thinking can take place.

Rate yourself 1-10 (where 10 is high) for the level of support you provide; your

default support setting?

Rate yourself 1-10 (where 10 is high) for the level of challenge you provide; your

default challenge setting?

What do you notice? What would need to happen for you to increase each of

these to where you would want them to be?

When a team faces new and difficult challenges, I have found that there can be a

temptation to reduce the amount of challenge in order to meet the level of

support that is available. An alternative to this could be to increase the amount

of support in order to meet the challenge. But by not increasing the amount of

support in a challenging situation there is a risk teams and individuals will move

into stress and reduce performance.

What could support look like? Here are some ideas to place alongside your own:

  •  Increase collaboration

  •  Provide mentoring or coaching

  •  Postponing work deadlines in some areas

  •  Allowing individuals to work from home

  •  Training

  •  Listening /Empathy

  •  Setting boundaries

  •  Reduce / Increase meeting times

  •  Provide additional resources

What could challenge look like? Some ideas:

  •  Setting courageous goals

  •  Moving individuals out of comfort zones and into stretch

  •  Asking for innovation and risk taking

  •  Insist on greater levels of trust / challenge poor behaviours

  •  Asking what the real challenge is when an individual presents a problem

  •  Do something that has not been attempted before

As another exercise, write down the names of the individuals you lead and write

next to the names a number out of 10 for the amount of support you provide that

individual and another number out of 10 for the amount of challenge that you

provide that individual.

What do you notice?

What actions could you take in the light of this?

Here is the same support-challenge matrix, but with leadership styles for each


When we take time to consider the different levels of support and challenge we

provide to our teams, this also reflects back to us our current leadership style.

Here is an interesting question: what is it like to be led by you?

Growing as a leader involves increasing our self-awareness and being able to

embrace feedback.

What actions do you need to take as you move towards a greater liberator style

of leadership?

“One of the most important of all leadership skills is self-awareness”

Robin Sharma

Article written by Leadership Coach Ian White