Situational Leadership

One of the keys to the success of a manager is their ability to switch, or flex, styles as the conditions in their environment change.  This is commonly referred to as "situational leadership™."  It's important to understand this concept because an approach that may have worked in the past may be ineffective in the future.

Situational Leadership™ Theory

Most of the leadership training programs offered today are aimed at helping attendees discover the leadership style they exhibit, in addition to reviewing its strengths and weaknesses.  However, an effective style is not dictated by the skills of the manager. Rather, the skills a leader must utilize to be successful are dictated by the existing work environment, or the specific needs of the business.

An effective manager is able to utilize multiple leadership styles as conditions change.  This is the theory behind the concept of situational leadership.  Implementing this approach in an organization then becomes a matter of training managers to recognize the current work setting, or employee conditions, and using the most effective style given the specific challenge.

For example, delegating work to an employee that is ill prepared to accept that responsibility may result in the impression the worker is incompetent.  This can lead to frustration for both the manager and worker.  Ironically, it is actually the manager's inability to recognize the most effective leadership style, or refusal to switch styles, that is really the cause of an ineffective workforce.

Presently, there appears to be two mainstream theories describing situational leadership.  The first model is based on Daniel Goleman's elements of emotional intelligence: self awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills.

Goleman's Model of Situational Leadership

In Goleman's model, he combines his five elements of emotional intelligence to formulate a total of six situational leadership styles, which are described below.  Goleman emphasizes the need for a manager to change between these six styles as conditions around them change.

Coaching Leaders

In the coaching style, the focus is on helping others in their personal development and in their job-related activities.  The coaching leader aids others to get up to speed by working closely with them.  They make sure employees have the knowledge and tools to get their job done.  This style works best when the employee already understands their weaknesses, and is receptive to ideas on how to improve.

Pacesetting Leaders

When employees are self-motivated and highly skilled, the pacesetting style is extremely effective.  The pacesetting leader sets very high performance standards for themselves and their group, and exemplifies the behaviors that are sought from other members of the group.  This particular leadership style needs to be used sparingly, since workers can often "burn out" due to the demanding pace of this approach.

Democratic Leaders

The democratic leader gives members of the work group a vote or a say in nearly every decision made by the team.  When used effectively, this style builds flexibility and responsibility, and can help identify new ways to do things with fresh ideas.  However, this approach can be very time consuming because of the level of personal involvement required in the decision-making process.

Affiliative Leaders

The affiliative leader is most effective in situations where morale is low or teambuilding is needed.  This style is easily recognized by the theme of "employee first."  Employees can expect much praise from this leader.  Unfortunately, poor performance may also go without reprimand.

Authoritative Leaders

If a business seems to be drifting aimlessly, then the authoritative style can be very effective in this type of situation.  The authoritative leader is an expert in dealing with the problems or challenges at hand, and they can clearly identify goals that will lead to success.  They also allow employees to figure out the best way to achieve those goals.

Coercive Leaders

The coercive style should be used with caution because it's based on the concept of "command and control," which usually causes a decrease in motivation among those that are interacting with this type of manager.  The coercive leader is most effective in situations where the company or group requires a complete turnaround.  It is also effective during disasters, or when dealing with underperforming employees; usually as a last resort.

Ken Blanchard's Situational Leadership™ Model

This second model is derived from the leadership theory explained by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey.  In this model, Blanchard and Hersey describe two fundamental concepts: that of leadership style, as well as the development level of the person being led.

Blanchard and Hersey characterized the situational leadership style in terms of the amount of the direction, and the support, provided to followers.  The styles they described fall into the following four types:

Telling Leaders

This manager defines the roles and tasks for each follower, and then supervises them very closely.  All important decisions are made by the leader, and announced to the followers.  This means communication is predominantly one-way; with the leader telling others what to do.

Selling Leaders

The selling leader defines the roles and the tasks of each follower, but also seeks ideas and suggestions from followers.  Decisions are made predominantly by the leader, but the communication style used is two-way.  These managers are good at "selling" their ideas.

Participating Leaders

A participating leader passes along the day-to-day decisions, such as dividing up the workload, to their followers.  They will help to facilitate discussions, and take part in the decision-making process, but ultimate control is with the followers.

Delegating Leaders

The delegating leader is still involved in the workgroup's decisions, and helps to solve problems, but the ultimate control is with the followers.  In fact, with this style, the followers decide when to get the leader involved.

Development Levels of Followers

Blanchard and Hersey's situational leadership model also recognized the importance of the development level of those being led.  Their theory states that the leader's style needs to reflect, in part, the competence and commitment of the followers.  Those two dimensions were then used to derive the following four development levels of those being led:

  • Low Competence, High Commitment
  • Some Competence, Low Commitment
  • High Competence, Variable Commitment
  • High Competence, High Commitment

In Blanchard's model of leadership, there exists an ideal style to apply to each development level.  Much of that logic is the same as that found in Goleman's model.

Implementing Situational Leadership

As mentioned earlier, implementing this approach in an organization is really nothing more than teaching managers how to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each leadership style, and how this knowledge can be applied to a given work situation.  It's also important for managers to recognize their intrinsic style, because that will often be the one they will fall back into in times of stress.

Successful leaders in any organization are able to quickly recognize the correct style to apply in a given situation.  They make use of that style to achieve superior business results.  Regardless of the model or theory used to describe these styles, both Goleman and Blanchard agree on this last point:  flexibility is the key to success.

About the Author - Situational Leadership (Last Reviewed on August 15, 2016)