Situational leadership theory is based on the premise that there is no one best style of leadership. Instead, what counts as the most effective leadership style depends on the situation of an organization — what tasks or problems are at hand — rather than the fixed skills or qualities of the leader. The situational leader evaluates their team or organization by simply asking about the current situation of the organization. Based on the understanding that is derived by answering this question, they do what is required to successfully lead the team.
This article provides leaders a guide to situational leadership theory and illustrates when it can be applied.
What Is Situational Leadership?
There are two mainstream situational leadership models, the David Goleman model and the Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey model. Outlined in the 1969 book “Management of Organizational Behavior” by leadership expert Ken Blanchard and author Paul Hersey, the original Situational Leadership Model introduced leaders to the idea that management style should be adapted based on the development levels of their team (known as S1, S2, S3, S4). Later, in 1995, in the bestselling book “Emotional Intelligence,” science journalist and bestselling author David Goleman developed his own model, focusing on an additional six leadership styles (coaching, pacesetting, democratic, affiliative, authoritative and coercive).
Examples of Situational Leaders
Any team can benefit from situational leadership, and organizations that currently use situational leadership include Adobe. Adobe’s Leadership Circles program has been coaching leaders since 2012 in people-first, team building, empathetic leadership and has since developed several Microsoft leaders. Dwight Eisenhower was a situational leader as president and served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force during WWII. Seasoned in the military, Eisenhower had a strong directive approach combined with diplomacy as a statesman.
Characteristics of the Situational Leader
The following are some of the basic characteristics of the situational leadership style.
The fundamental idea behind situational leadership is that there is no such thing as a single best or fixed type of leadership. The requirements of an organization will change over time, and situational leaders are able to be flexible and adapt their style of leadership to both the level of maturity of the group that they are leading and the situation at hand. A situational leader even adapts their leadership style to different tasks and to building stronger, more positive relationships in the workplace. Situational leaders examine the way their workplace is organized, continuously assessing its changing strengths and weaknesses.
Changes According to the Situation
The leadership style that the situational leader brings into play will be dependent on two factors: the situation at hand and the maturity level of the individuals involved. Situational leaders use the Hersey-Blanchard situational leadership model in order to assess the “maturity level” or “development level” of their team. If a team or team member is inexperienced, then they will need a prescriptive, hands-on leadership style. As they mature, their skills can be developed through coaching and some team members will be able to handle some of the decision-making processes themselves. As the Goleman model explains, a situational leader will adapt on the basis of which issues their organization faces, whether that involves fixing team relationships, building consensus on issues or improving long-term performance.
Situational leadership will be high on the “directive” aspect when team members are inexperienced and need a lot of direction, and will need the right knowledge and motivation to complete tasks. At the S1 level, a leader gives their team direct instructions on how to achieve goals. When restructuring an organization, a situational leader will adopt a “coercive” style: They instruct their subordinates in exactly how to achieve the set goal. It is important in these types of circumstances for the situational leader to look ahead with a positive growth mentality, as they will want this team member to be eventually independent enough that they can make some decisions in the team.
The coaching style is an extension of the directive approach; at this development level the leader still prescribes their team or team members detailed instructions, but they focus more on soliciting input and talking them through the process of certain decisions. Leaders should consider the coaching leadership style when a team member is at the S2 level — they are experienced, but there is room for them to grow personally and professionally. A situational leader is committed to the growth of their team.
The situational leader may try to encourage a team at the S3 level to become more independent in performing tasks by letting them make routine decisions. This employs both the pacesetting and democratic leadership styles; high-level problem solving is still under the leader’s purview, but they allow their mature and capable team members to actively participate in some of the decision-making process. In making some aspects of the decision-making or troubleshooting process open to their team, the situational leader becomes receptive to new ideas, which can come from team members of all levels.
When dealing with a highly matured and capable team, the situational leader will gradually reduce their supervision and involvement in the daily activities of team members. At the S4 level, the leader is involved while discussing tasks and deciding on the goals to be achieved, but after that team members have complete freedom on how they want to accomplish these goals. A situational leader will find in this situation that a democratic style of leadership is more available, encouraging their followers to take more responsibility. Team members who are highly motivated can help develop a leader’s original vision further, and will become aware of and grow what is known as “the collective consciousness of the entire organization.”
It takes a lot of courage for a leader to try out different leadership approaches and figure out which one is ideal. Most leaders stick to a particular way of doing things — whatever has worked best for them in the past. But a situational leader is not afraid to take chances and to adopt a radically different leadership style if the situation demands it. Authoritative, democratic and pacesetting leadership styles are useful here; the situational leader drives the project and its core ideas while remaining open to new inspiration from smart, experienced followers. As the pacesetter, the situational leader sets high standards for their followers and is useful for getting a project off the ground.
Situational leaders prioritize the sustainability of their organization and encourage their followers without manipulating the situation at hand. Growth focused, they are committed to improving the organizational structure of their business and care about its longevity. This involves adapting in a way that is most appropriate, considering factors such as the maturity level of followers, the organizational structure and culture, and the goals to be achieved. Situational leaders do so with integrity and are not motivated by a desire to unfairly capitalize on the weaknesses of the team or organization. A leader that might be a strong pacesetter will have to make sure that their followers do not experience burnout and know when to listen to their needs.
The situational leader has a clear vision of where the team and the project is going. This is what allows a leader to identify and adopt the most effective behaviors and strategies to reach their goal. Self-confident leaders employ the authoritative style: They are great catalysts for change and know how to build the most effective team, what qualities they’re looking for from team members and how their team should cohere, and which team members will help them build their vision and provide future inspiration.
The situational leader does not claim to know it all; they have learned when to put people first for the good of their organization. When they have highly developed and mature followers, they have the humility to accept limitations and seek the higher wisdom of the group. Conversely, humility also comes into play when their team is low on morale, and it is down to the situational leader to collaborate and rebuild self-worth in the team, prioritizing collaboration and the resolution of conflict; here the leader is taking on an “affiliative” leadership style.
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This blog was updated for clarity in June 2021
Lottie Brazier is a UK journalist and copywriter, with writing in The Guardian, Dazed and Vice.