Situation-Based Leadership

By Lane Sloan, Silver Fox Advisors

Leadership does not have a simple formula for every situation.

A lot of the leadership theory comes from academicians studying a formulation of their leadership model from observing the real world.  They test the model with empirical research to determine results on performance. Then, the outcomes are put into a report or article. It’s the publish or perish phenomenon.

If we look at the chapter headings from a well-known college text by Northouse entitled Leadership: Theory and Practice, we find a long list of these type models as well as some more generalized topics:

Trait Approach, Skills Approach, Behavioral Approach, Situational Approach, Path-Goal Theory, Leader-Member Exchange Theory, Transformational Leadership, Authentic Leadership, Servant Leadership, Adaptive Leadership, Followership, Leadership Ethics, Team Leadership, Gender and Leadership, Culture and Leadership.

Wow, how do you sort out all these concepts?  And this is just a college textbook articulating all these different perspectives.  There are lots of other relevant authors, whether academicians or practitioners, not included in the chapters listed above such as Strength Based Leadership.

The point is there are many dimensions and factors that come into play when leading.  One facet is all about the leader.  Another dimension is the organization which includes followers, culture, and so forth.  Others are about the relationship of the leader and the follower.  Still other facets are about the broader environment. And so forth.  It is hard to mold all this into one single, grandiose model.

If that were not challenging enough, the overall environment is changing at a rapid pace as we discussed in my blog on leadership agility.

Ultimately, it all centers on the particular situation and how all the multiple dimensions line up.

Fortunately, many situations are comparable, and the response can be repeatable.  Many others will be unique in some fashion that will require you to adjust.  Like playing a game of golf, the better you are the more natural the adjustment.

Situational Leadership

One model by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard has been coined “Situational Leadership.”  The model has evolved over time, but the basics state the style of the leader changes depending on the situation and readiness level of the followers.

In a situation of low readiness such as a new employee, then the style is much more directive. You have to tell them what to do. As progress is made, the mode of the leader shifts to coaching with high on direction and supportive behavior.  Further progress by the employee suggests lower direction but still highly supportive behavior from the manager.  Finally, in the fourth stage with a matured employee performing their role, the leadership style shifts to delegating with low on the direction and relatively low on support.

Of course, this model is limited in that the focus is on only one dimension of the manager and employee’s relationship.  Nevertheless, it provided a significant breakthrough that no one leadership style fits every situation.  Moreover, it makes sense and can be applied rather easily.

Adaptive Leadership first described by Heifetz in Leadership Without Easy Answers back in 1994 also gets into the relationship of the leader and the follower based on the follower’s situation.  As the name implies, this model gets into adapting to change which has become more pronounced today.

What to Do?

First, do not think you have all the answers by learning one highly touted approach to leadership.  Rather think of the dimension it is adding to your leadership portfolio of knowledge. The critical point I have been trying to make is there is no one holistic model that prescribes what you should do in every situation.

Second, if you’re in the early stages of your leadership growth, do get several books to read. Take a leadership course or seminar. But also get advice from a leadership coach/mentor. Think of learning golf, a coach goes a long way.  If you are a CEO at a small company  that is growing, you should also consider joining a CEO Roundtable.

Third, once you have some leadership experience, do an assessment of yourself.  I would suggest you look at my Leadership Personal Profile blog of February 23, 2021. It will help you identify areas for improvement.

Fourth, I advise mentees do not get yourself in a “tizzy” on what to do. In leading, be engaged.  Get whatever input you feel is important, then, behave/decide what you think is best given all the circumstances and what you know at the time. In the case where action is needed, that can range from you making the decision, to a team participation, to a delegation and so forth.  In other words, all you can do is the best you can given where you are at in your leadership journey.

Fifth, whatever the leadership situation and the action has been taken, always be open to feedback from followers particularly with significant events or direction. Simultaneously, look at the impact on the performance of the business. Think of the feedback and results not as a critique but a new learning in your portfolio whether it’s good or bad.

Sixth, as your leadership matures, be flexible to the situation and not locked into you know the answer of what to do. Situations always evolve over time, and now they are evolving rapidly. In the maturing process of living systems, we naturally structure approaches to solve problems, issues, and opportunities. Many CEOs go through a pattern of first being incredibly open and inquisitive in their early days to eventually becoming rigid in their thinking to the detriment of the organization.

Seventh, insure you maintain your character and are true to your core values.  This builds trust with your followers.  They know they can count on you to do what is best given changing circumstances.  We will talk about that more in an upcoming blog entitled Character: A Learned Behavior.

Eighth, utilize a wise coach who can act as your alter ego to help you avoid these rigidities setting into your leadership while helping you maintain your authenticity.

Ninth, be sure you are coaching your leadership team and employees to become better leaders. This will be a huge help to them but also keep you fresh.

Lastly, if you want to be a great leader, then seek first to be a wise leader. Wisdom is knowing you need to know more.  Your rigidities will set in when you quit learning. A little humbleness on what you know goes a long way in your lifelong leadership journey.

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