The Future of Situational Leadership
By Joel Shapiro
Situational Leadership: A major advance in leadership
Situational leadership made a major advance in leadership. It helped us move from one size fits all to four major leadership approaches, each suited to a different situation.
The basic idea is utterly convincing: different situations call for different leadership styles. A beginner needs more coaching support than an expert. An expert can handle more delegation than a beginner. And so on.
Abraham Maslow said: “To a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” You don’t need to be a hammer. Expand your range and flexibility as a leader. Deploy your skills appropriately for the situation at hand.
Situational leadership continues to be extremely valuable for everyday supervision, coaching, empowering, and delegating.
Major shortcoming of Situational Leadership
Despite its great advance, Situational Leadership has a major shortcoming. Classic Situational Leadership reduces all leadership situations to four pre-set situations. It teaches people how to supervise within four neat & tidy boxes. This reduction repeats the very mistake Situational Leadership was designed to correct. By forcing the round pegs of human experience into four square holes, this oversimplification greatly limits the potential applications and benefits of situational leadership.
After offering a brief review of how Situational Leadership works, I am going to show you how to move beyond its major shortcoming. A few tiny adjustments can make Situational Leadership more flexible, effective, and easy to use.
How it works
The basic principle of Situational Leadership is quite simple: give employees the direction and support they need based on the level of their skills and motivation with respect to the task at hand.
- Direction refers to technical coaching support (what to do and how to do it).
- Support refers to building confidence and motivation (encouragement).
In classic Situational Leadership, we choose a leadership approach that matches the employee’s readiness for the work at hand. Four basic employee situations are identified, and an appropriate leadership style is outlined for each of the four situations. As employees become more and more competent, the leadership style shifts from close supervision (micro-managing/hand-holding) to full-on delegation and empowerment.
At the first level, employees are not yet skilled but highly motivated—this situation calls for lots of direction (coaching/training) but not so much support (encouragement). At the fourth level, employees are highly skilled but perhaps nervous about taking on more responsibility—this situation calls for more encouragement than training. Before I show you how these four pre-set situations are arbitrary and restrictive, let’s remind ourselves of the importance and purpose of this work—what we want out of it.
Two key objectives
Most people focus only on the supervisory aspect of situational leadership. You will generate far better results as a leader if you keep two key objectives in mind.
- Appropriate supervision: Give employees the direction & support they need relative to their skills, motivation, and the situation at hand. The goal here is to help employees perform their tasks effectively.
- Appropriate development: Use each level to prepare the employee for the next level. The goal here is to help employees develop, i.e., to prepare them for more and more delegation, responsibility, and complexity.
In other words, we not only choose the appropriate level of direction and support based on what the employee is ready for. We also continually challenge ourselves (as leaders) to up the employee’s level of challenge and responsibility in order to help them grow and develop. People learn from doing, so bigger challenges lead to greater learning—as long as you are giving your employees the coaching support they need along the way.
Without this second objective (development), it is very easy to get stuck, become complacent, and typecast your employees. We need this second objective to keep the model dynamic; to continually drive progress and employee development. Let’s restate the overarching goal: Use the level of supervision that your employee needs in each situation, gradually shifting your leadership style from close supervision to delegation in order to help your employee perform the task (achieve the goal), and develop from beginner to expert.
I also add these two key considerations: (1) What does the situation call for? E.g., an urgent situation might require you to manage the situation more closely than you would have otherwise. (2) How can you leverage your unique strengths as a leader in this situation? In other words, go as far as you can to customize for the employee’s needs, but also pay attention to your own skill set—so that you can leverage your strengths and build your skills as well.
Theory versus the real world
In many versions of Situational Leadership, it is assumed that employees are unwilling (not motivated) and/or insecure (not confident) in the second and fourth quadrants. This is the point at which the classic model becomes rigid and dogmatic.
It is unrealistic to assume that there are only four situations—four combinations of employee skill and motivation. This false assumption greatly limits the power and range of Situational Leadership.
Some people are motivated and confident all the way through; some suffer a crisis of confidence when you first delegate to them; and others are recklessly overconfident. And external situations (e.g., new competitors, new colleagues, bad customer feedback, a merger, etc.) can throw even experienced employees into a tailspin.
In other words, someone with low competence is not always highly motivated—they might be motivated or unmotivated, excited or discouraged, confident or nervous…or recklessly over-confident. As competence improves, confidence usually increases as well—but not necessarily. Even skill development is not perfectly linear. While it is true that skills tend to increase over time (especially with respect to specific tasks), learning is lumpy and bumpy, and many tasks are complicated. You can be an expert at one aspect of a task but still a beginner at another.
Dynamic Leadership—working outside the boxes
It’s time to break out of the Situational Leadership boxes.
My advice here is very simple: separate skills from motivation in the Situational Leadership model. Consider skills and motivation separately (as two separate issues) when diagnosing what kind of leadership is required in any particular situation.
This will enable you to use your direction and support tactics (your leadership practices) independently of each other. You can now use them when you need them, rather than having to rely on some dogmatic, pre-set, 4×4 quadrant.
What you end up with is more flexibility and a far more common sense guide to action.
It’s amazing how obvious these solutions seem once we start thinking outside the situational leadership boxes. If someone is discouraged, offer encouragement—regardless of their level of competence. If someone is unskilled, help them build their skills—regardless of how motivated they are. And on on.
There are times, of course, when the situation is so sensitive that you have to take over the task. But if you run your shop like that every day no one is going to learn how to do anything for themselves and you will disempower and disengage your team.
Continually challenge yourself to stretch employees, teach them new things, expose them to more difficult challenges… and proactively help them learn from their experiences, successes, and mistakes. Make your employees part of the solution by engaging them in the challenges and opportunities of your business.
- Regardless of the situation or quadrant, it is always important to lead well, e.g.
- Have a clear plan of action with concrete roles, goals, metrics, and timelines.
- Offer training, coaching, and encouragement as needed.
- Debrief to help people stay on track and learn from experience.
- Monitor your success, i.e., pay attention to the effectiveness of your leadership style.
- Enhance employee participation to enhance engagement and build skills.
- Appreciate effort & achievement; celebrate successes; share the credit.
Incrementa’s unique program
Incrementa’s Dynamic Leadership program takes leaders beyond the classic Situational Leadership model. We detach employee needs and leadership practices from the classic four-box model. This opens the door to a far more flexible and nuanced approached to leadership, without adding complexity. In fact, we make it even easier for leaders to apply the most powerful lessons of situational leadership. And we do this in a way that makes the practice of situational leadership more effective and flexible; more responsive to the reality of each situation.
We teach managers how to recognize different employee situations, and how to lead in those various situations: how to guide, direct, support, facilitate, coach, engage…and delegate as appropriate. We offer a comprehensive and robust set of leadership practices and tools that help leaders do a better job of supervising, leading, and developing employees—how to lead well and do it more consistently and with more sustainable results.
Situational leadership is one of a handful of core leadership practices that we share with our clients. Incrementa offers world class leadership development programs in six master leadership practices: (i) setting vision and strategy; (ii) execution and leading change; (iii) employee engagement and retention; (iv) coaching and managing talent; (v) collaborative practice, team leadership, facilitative leadership; and (vi) aligning culture with strategy—managing culture for competitive advantage.
About the Author
Joel Shapiro is a leadership educator and culture guru with Incrementa Consulting in Calgary, Canada. Joel is passionate about developing leadership capacity, making employees part of the solution, and finding the perfect blend of humanity and business performance. You can read more of Joel’s thoughts on the Incrementa website and on Twitter.