Dwight Eisenhower. George Patton. Pat Summitt. Colin Powell. Phil Jackson. What do these famous figures have in common? Aside from being important and well-respected leaders, they also employed situational leadership.
This leadership style means that the leader adapts and adjusts their management style based on the situation at hand and the development and maturity levels of their team members. In many instances, it can be highly successful. Is it right for you and your organization?
What is situational leadership?
Situational leadership describes a style in which leaders take into account the specific situation at hand, as well as the behaviors and attitudes of the people involved — team members, employees and so on — to figure out how to best proceed. It requires the ability to adapt and look at events and topics from multiple perspectives, rather than adhering to a single method of managing and leading. It’s an approach that constantly evolves and changes in order to meet different needs at a given time and stage.
The origin of situational leadership.
Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard described this leadership style in their 1969 book, Management of Organizational Behavior. In the book, they originally called it the “Life Cycle Theory of Leadership,” renaming it “situational leadership theory” several years later. They posited that no singular leadership style is appropriate for every situation, so they articulated four styles within the overarching theory. They also noted that the leader’s and subordinates’ individual attributes and actions contribute to determining what style of leadership is best in a given situation.
Later, Hersey and Blanchard each developed individual theories based on the initial concept of situational leadership, which they further described in their books, The Situational Leader (Hersey 1985) and The One-Minute Manager (Blanchard 1982).
Management of Organizational Behavior is currently in its 10th edition, published in 2012.
4 examples and scenarios.
There are many situations in which situational leadership is especially appropriate. For example, sports teams frequently experience changes due to team members coming and going. This means the strengths and weaknesses of the entire team are constantly changing, too. Therefore, coaches need to adapt their strategies, approaches and leadership methods given the variable situations and circumstances at hand.
The leadership style is also appropriate for organizations that frequently deal with unpredictable emergencies, such as firefighting, police and medical personnel and facilities. In an emergency room, a physician might need to change course when working a patient experiences complications, for instance, and direct the medical staff accordingly.
In periods of war, military generals must constantly revise their approaches based on the personalities and strengths of their units. They also need to change course depending on the challenges and unexpected scenarios they encounter.
You may even find that situational leadership can apply to everyday life. For example, parents will need to adapt their approaches based on how their children grow and develop their personalities.
What are the four leadership styles of situational leadership?
Within situational leadership, Blanchard and Hersey identified four leadership styles based on the development and maturity levels of the subordinates, as well as the leader herself. They include:
1. Telling or directing.
According to this style, leaders exercise decision-making authority and, as implied by the name, “tell” them to the rest of the team. Often, this method is used in emergency situations or those in which prompt and immediate action is required.
2. Coaching or selling.
Here, leaders may have certain expectations, roles or strategies in mind and attempt to encourage others to get on board with their ideas. However, they may remain open to the opinions of others as well.
3. Participating or sharing.
Unlike the previous two models, the leader in this scenario involves others in the decision-making process in a large way. In fact, subordinates have a strong hand in determining the outcome and making the decisions.
Team members act based on direction from the leader, but the leader is not closely involved in how they approach tasks and issues. Occasionally, team members may be involved in making larger decisions.
Development and maturity models.
A situational leader will employ each of the models above depending on the development and maturity of their employees. Development is assigned a number from 1-4 alongside the initial “D,” with D1 describing the lowest level of development and D4 describing the highest. Maturity, likewise, ranges from M1-M4, with M1 being the lowest level of maturity. A D1, M1 employee would likely be most suited to a Telling approach, while a D4, M4 would likely thrive under a Delegating model. However, employees will demonstrate a wide range of strengths and weaknesses, and a situational leader will adapt their approach accordingly.
Why is situational leadership most effective?
There are many benefits to using the situational leadership style. For example:
- It’s highly flexible.
- It’s easy to adapt depending on the scenario.
- It’s straightforward and intuitive.
- It accounts for many different working styles and personalities.
- It boosts collaboration, communication, productivity and morale in teams.
- It encourages leaders to be transparent about goals.
- It encourages leaders to be creative.
- It allows leaders to nurture the development of their subordinates.
- It accounts for challenges and unforeseen obstacles.
- It focuses on relationship-building.
- It enables the leader to better control outcomes.
Drawbacks to situational leadership.
Of course, the situational leadership model is not without its critics. There are some notable drawbacks. For example:
- It doesn’t account for long-term efforts and goals.
- Expectations may be unclear.
- Subordinates must depend on the leader and their approach.
- It’s only appropriate for flexible situations, rather than strict, task-driven or deadline-driven environments.
- The leader may not have an appropriate background to account for different perspectives.
- It puts pressure on the leader.
- The leader may not be able to accurately assess the maturity level of their subordinates.
- There are no real, concrete steps leaders can follow; they must rely on their intuition.
- The leader must be equipped with the skills to respond to complex situations (and some aren’t).
Should you use the situational leadership method? Well, that depends on the situation! Many leaders and employees respond well to this style, although it’s not appropriate for every organization. Carefully evaluate the pros and cons and consider your environment and employees. You may also find that it’s appropriate in some contexts, while others require a different approach.