How Effective Leaders Use Situational Leadership
How Effective Leaders Use Situational Leadership

How Effective Leaders Use Situational Leadership

Leadership Development, Company Culture, Employee Well-being   — 4 MIN


According to Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey, the thinkers behind the situational leadership approach, there is no one best leadership style. Even if a particular leadership style works for one team, it might not work for another. This concept is especially true when employees have different competency and commitment levels. So instead of leaders doubling down on a leadership style that may prove ineffective, they should adapt to their workplaces and employees as needed.

What is situational leadership?

Situational leadership is a flexible and adaptive leadership style that continually observes and analyzes the many variables that can impact a workplace. The leader is encouraged to choose the leadership style that best fits the goals and circumstances at that time. Kenneth Blanchard, one of the founders of the situational leadership model says, “In the past, a leader was a boss. Today’s leaders can no longer lead solely based on positional power.”

What do situational leaders have in common?

Among researchers and practitioners in the field of situational leadership, the following are the five key traits of an effective situational leader:

  • Insight: Insight understands when the workplace paradigm is shifting and realizing it’s time to change management styles.
  • Flexibility: Leaders must be flexible (and comfortable with flexibility) to move from one leadership style to another.
  • Trust: The leader must gain (or already have) their employees’ trust to switch leadership styles more seamlessly when appropriate.
  • Coaching: The leader must understand and become comfortable with the role of coaching while working to improve their coaching skills, as opposed to just managing.
  • Evaluation: Evaluation is needed to assess the competence and commitment of employees and teams. 

Leaders are at the front lines of a company’s ability to adapt. A leader must understand when and how to employ situational leadership. This ability to switch between styles has proven time and again to be not only beneficial to employees but to lead to organizational success.

What are the types of situational leadership?

Delegating: This is the leadership style where involvement with employees is at its lowest. Although the leader may be involved with some direction or feedback, there is generally a hands-off approach to the actual task. Employees own their tasks, know their roles, and can perform them with little supervision. This style can be used with employees who have high commitment and competency.

Supporting: This style of situational leadership is focused on providing feedback and praise to increase confidence and motivation. Much like delegating, this approach is typically hands-off on tasks. Instead, the energy spent is to provide encouragement. Employees who tend to work best under this leadership style have the necessary skills but may lack the confidence to achieve the goals at hand.

Coaching: In this style of situational leadership, employees are encouraged with direct praise and feedback and are given direction on their tasks in a more supportive way. This leadership style works best with employees who are still learning their jobs or new projects.

Directing: This style is most effective when a company is in crisis or a product is being taken to market, though it’s often the approach taken with new hires. Here, the leader is in charge and closely supervises the employees.

Leaders need rest to stay mentally and physically fit, which is something we often overlook. You cannot be the best leader for your team if you are dealing with burnout. To understand the development level of an employee, you need to look at two factors: competence and commitment. If a person isn’t performing well without your direction, they will typically have a competence problem, a commitment problem, or both. Have a dialogue with your employee to try to assess the area in which they may be lacking and then switch to the appropriate leadership style to respond.

Not only must leaders learn to adapt to their organization's long-term goals, but flexibility is also a necessity for a person’s health and sanity. However, many of us are resistant to the unknown of change, which makes adapting incredibly difficult. Adaptable people are flexible in three areas: cognitive, emotional, and dispositional.

  • Cognitive flexibility is the ability to use various thinking strategies and mental frameworks in various situations.
  • Emotional flexibility is the ability to vary the approach to dealing with emotions and react appropriately to the emotions of other people.
  • Dispositional flexibility is the ability to remain both optimistic and realistic at the same time.

Effective leaders are adaptive leaders.
Being able to readily access a variety of behaviors that can enhance adaptability will enable effective leaders to meet the needs of their workplaces and employees. Here are just a few of the many methods to try to become more flexible on the job:

  • Build support systems. No one says you must adapt alone. Create groups of friends, mentors, coaches, peers, and colleagues who can support you in times of change. Encourage your employees to have support systems, as well.
  • Don’t get too single-minded. If Plan A doesn’t work, switch to Plan B or even C.  Perhaps your proposal for adjusting the scope of your project was rejected by your client, so you should adjust the budget, instead. If that doesn't work, then reach out to your teammates and hold a brainstorming session to develop a Plan C that will incorporate your client’s needs.
  • Questions are your friend. Questions allow you to explore and consider before you simply judge and decide. According to research, asking questions forms new patterns in the brain. The more questions you ask, the more patterns your brain develops, which allows for greater flexibility.

Don’t get stuck. Life is all about new situations, so regularly immerse yourself in unique environments, situations, or skills. By challenging yourself to something different, new patterns are activated in your brain, which allows for greater perspective and new options at work and home. This also is a great option for people navigating mental health challenges. As a leader, you need to be clear about your own emotions and thoughts on change. That authenticity will allow you to be straightforward with your team. Now more than ever, effective leadership is a critical component of company culture and engagement.

Employees want to work for leaders who are innovative and committed to seeing them succeed. Being flexible in your leadership style based on organizational needs and trends is vital in helping your team stay innovative and inspired to get things done.