Situational Leadership® is an adaptive style that takes into consideration current circumstances and team composition to determine the right way to lead. Instead of leading from a one-dimensional angle, situational leaders effectively guide their organizations by strategically deploying their leadership qualities. Therefore, they create better outcomes by modifying themselves to positively influence team members.
Situational Leadership results in increased productivity and heightened levels of job satisfaction. According to research published by Scientific & Academic Publishing, “Situational Leadership was proven to be a very effective leadership style to motivate employees in different kinds of sectors. According to the results obtained . . . task behavior theory . . . is directly related to the improvement of employee’s task productivity.”
Simply put, effective leadership isn’t one size fits all—people within an organization differ from one another. While some might need more support and direction, others may need the exact opposite. At various stages in a person’s career, or even in smaller situations, different types of leadership are needed.
As Paul Hersey, co-creator of the Situational Leadership model, wrote: “People differ not only in their ability to do but also in their ‘will to do.’” Regardless of these differences, situational leaders serve in a way that gets everyone working toward a collective vision. Situational Leadership keeps all this in mind, teaching leaders how to adapt to their team’s needs on an individual level.
In this article, find out more about Situational Leadership, its background, the top qualities of situational leaders, and how to grow a cohesive, strong team that achieves your organizational vision.
- The theory behind Situational Leadership originated in 1969.
- Situational Leadership puts team members at the forefront.
- A situational leader will change their approach based on employees’ Performance Readiness®.
- The four styles of Situational Leadership are Telling, Selling, Participating, and Delegating.
- Situational Leadership is best when you need to improve productivity under conditions that change constantly and require flexibility.
What Is Situational Leadership?
Situational Leadership is a flexible, adaptable style of leadership that determines whether a leader is more directive or supportive based on their followers’ individualized needs. For instance, business owners, executives, and managers who practice this type of leadership shift their management style based on a person’s development.
For Situational Leadership to work, the leader must always take into account what their followers require. In this sense, the situational approach puts followers front and center. A situational leader knows they have to be flexible depending on who they’re working with and what the conditions are. As such, Situational Leadership uses the most effective method at any moment.
Understanding Situational Leadership Theory
As referenced above, Paul Hersey co-authored Management of Organizational Behavior with Ken Blanchard in 1969. In this foundational work, the two developed Situational Leadership theory. The concept lays out a business owner’s or manager’s relationship between task behavior and relationship behavior when interacting with their followers.
Explanation of Situational Leadership
There are four different leadership styles paired with four levels of team members’ Performance Readiness® or maturity. In chronological order, the leadership styles rank from least ready (requiring the most amount of direction and support) to most ready (requiring the least amount of direction and support).
Followers who have the lowest amount of Performance Readiness require the highest amount of attention. For example, this leadership style is typically used when someone is new to their role, not a self-starter, or failing to meet standards. When an employee cannot make decisions for themselves, a telling leader calls the shots. They set clearly defined goals and deadlines and also regularly check in on progress.
How to practice telling:
- Explain in detail what the goal of a task or project is.
- Provide specific information regarding who should be involved.
- Go into detail about the best practices for getting the job done.
- Make decisions for the employee as a way to get them to learn.
- Do all of the talking (don’t allow for much conversation, if any).
- Ask additional clarifying questions after giving instructions.
- Explain where they can get additional help if needed.
Selling leaders serve as influential, supportive figures for those who show interest in learning how to execute a job well done. This Situational Leadership style is used when providing motivation, growing buy-in, and building trust. In essence, a selling leader proves themselves as someone capable of leading their team members.
How to practice selling:
- Still explain in detail everything you need the team member to do.
- Be the primary decision-maker.
- Give team members the chance to ask questions as part of the conversation.
- Engage in more of a two-way discussion over what must get done.
- Show recognition for the things the team member does well.
- Provide correction that leads to steady improvement over time.
A participating leader creates a collaborative, encouraging environment where input is welcome. While the employee at hand might be more experienced and capable than those requiring the telling or selling styles, they still need support. When practicing this style, hands-on leaders let the team member do the decision-making but help as needed.
How to practice participating:
- Ask for input from the team members.
- Engage in active listening to ensure understanding.
- Give recognition for special achievements and accomplishments.
- Allow team members to make important decisions.
- Note what skills and abilities team members already excel at.
- Create an environment where people feel comfortable taking risks and trying something new.
- Have active conversations with team members about a variety of strategies.
This Situational Leadership style is practiced when dealing with experienced, competent, and motivated team members. With delegation, team members are granted the highest level of autonomy because they’ve proven they can successfully direct themselves. With this type of person, business owners and managers can be more hands-off, yet still offer support if the person needs it.
How to practice delegating:
- Give primary control to the team members.
- Take a hands-off approach to all decision-making.
- Cast an overall vision for what the team should accomplish.
- Provide resources and guidance only when called upon.
- Monitor progress without delving into day-to-day tasks.
- Give praise and recognition when goals are met.
Top Qualities of Situational Leaders
Because Situational Leadership is a leadership model, it is best defined by how it is put into action. For example, business leaders make it applicable in their organizations by exhibiting the following qualities:
With Situational Leadership, managers focus on identifying and analyzing team members’ Performance Readiness factors, which helps them adjust their style of leadership. They aren’t afraid of going into the details and figuring out the best ways to help their team members achieve new levels of excellence.
A leader with adaptive qualities can quickly shift out of the four influencing behaviors whenever they want. Even if they’re dealing with more than one person at a time, they can still seamlessly transition based on the needs of those in the room. Adaptive organizational leadership can determine what needs to be done at any given moment. Leaders with this trait show that they’re in tune with others, and they respond appropriately.
Rather than using authority, those practicing Situational Leadership build influence, which comes from growing trust and a safe work environment. People don’t follow these leaders’ directions because they fear them. Instead, situational managers show a softer approach that others want to follow. Team members feel comfortable around them and don’t need to be convinced beyond the initial instructions.
The purpose of Situational Leadership is to serve others by being flexible with what employees need from the person guiding them. A situational leader is someone who shows dedication to servant leadership. For them, it’s not about the prestige or perks that come from being a leader. Instead, they want to serve others and meet their needs because that’s what is best for the team members.
The primary goal of Situational Leadership is the growth and development of followers. Because of this, these leaders often serve as a coach who guides their team members through learning experiences and opportunities. If people make mistakes, they correct them and help them understand what they did wrong. When people do well, they receive appropriate recognition.
Situational Leadership gives leaders the opportunity to solve problems with their team. These problems might involve how to include a newcomer in the smoothest way possible or how to prepare one team member for future leadership roles. Situational leaders embrace these issues and give their best effort to come up with effective solutions.
When to Use Situational Leadership
Situational Leadership Works Best When:
- Productivity Counts: By working closely with each member of the team, Situational Leadership gets the most out of them. In that sense, you’re maximizing each team member’s potential. You base what each person can do on their level of skill.
- Flexibility Is Needed: If you have a team where there are significant differences in skill level, experience, motivation, and self-confidence, you’ll prefer a more flexible strategy. Situational Leadership excels at tailoring your approach for each person.
- Conditions Change Constantly: If you anticipate notable changes in the near future, Situational Leadership will come in handy. The same strategy with favorable conditions likely won’t work when things turn sour. By using Situational Leadership, you can adapt to those changes and always pick the best way to tackle problems.
Situational Leadership Isn’t the Best Option When:
- People Want to Work on Long-Term Goals: Situational Leadership tends to focus on short-term issues. In many ways, a situational leader will emphasize individual tasks that they need to deal with right away. While some approaches will have more long-term goals in mind, for the most part, Situational Leadership looks at the here and now. Those team members who prefer more long-term planning may end up becoming frustrated.
- You Need Input From Everyone: Situational Leadership follows guidelines on how to treat people depending on their skills, abilities, and experience. In cases where you need input from everyone on the team, you may want to use a democratic leadership style instead. Otherwise, those with less experience may feel left out since they might think they have little to contribute.
- The Team Needs Uniform Policies: When you use Situational Leadership, some team members may become confused at seeing you treat others differently. This may breed resentment and, without proper conflict management, can quickly spiral out of control. For teams that expect everyone to be treated the same, Situational Leadership might not be the right choice.
Examples of Situational Leadership
The following people serve as great examples of what the situational model looks like in practice. While understanding the theory is important, it’s equally beneficial for situational leaders to see how the model works.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th U.S. President and Five-Star General
“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”
Eisenhower is famously known as a highly adaptable situational leader. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Situational Leadership served him as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, president of Columbia University, and later the 34th U.S. president. While these positions of power differed, Dwight D. Eisenhower always led by studying people and thinking strategically. For example, during his presidency, he deeply analyzed other political leaders and tried to figure out what he called their “personal equation.” Eisenhower’s Situational Leadership gave him a greater understanding of those he worked with and helped him realize how he could positively influence them.
Phil Jackson, NBA Coach
“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”
Jackson coached some of the greatest basketball players in history: Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal. He treated each player as an individual, analyzing their strengths and the places they could grow to better the team as a whole. For example, he quickly used the delegating leadership style with Jordan, but O’Neal required a more hands-on approach. Jackson knew Shaq was a phenomenal player but wasn’t at his optimal performance level when he joined the team. In a speech captured by Lakers Nation, Jackson says he challenged Shaq to play 48 minutes a game. This hands-on leadership approach led to Shaq winning MVP that year.
Steve Jobs, Co-Founder of Apple
“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was a multi-faceted leader, which is why it’s difficult to categorize his leadership style. Based on the way he guided others, he was most likely to be a situational leader. His behavior and actions truly depended on the situation and individual he was dealing with at the time. While he was undoubtedly an incredibly inspiring CEO, he also lacked a high level of emotional control. When using the telling leadership style, Jobs could speak with a cutting directness. His example goes to show that even outstanding leaders still have room for improvement. Using these leadership styles is a process that requires dedication and the constant pursuit of growth and development.
How to Start Practicing Situational Leadership Now
You don’t have to wait to learn how to become a situational leader. Here are several ways you can begin practicing Situational Leadership today.
- Take stock of your team members’ individual talents, skills, qualities, and experience levels.
- Build connections with other people to increase your emotional intelligence.
- Stay neutral during periods of heightened emotions.
- Look for solutions to problems instead of dwelling on negatives.
- Manage your expectations carefully, and change them when needed.
Ultimately, Situational Leadership is closely connected to strengths-based leadership. Both involve assessing your team members and understanding the type of leadership that suits them best. As you do this, your whole team will work more effectively together.