An introduction to
situational leadership

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An Introduction to Situational Leadership—How it Leads to Better Work

You may have heard about the situational approach to leadership and wonder just what is situational leadership. Created by Paul Hersey and Paul Blanchard in the late 1960s, situational leadership refers to an adaptive management style where a leader’s style morphs depending on the task, the people, and the function being managed. Today, it may seem like common sense that not all employees react in the same way to different management styles. However, in the mid to late-21st century, this was revolutionary.

Situational leadership differs from past leadership styles in that the manager is more of a facilitator than an autocratic boss. They are successful by ascertaining how to motivate and relate to different types of individuals and address different types of situations. In situational leadership, simply having the title of “boss” isn’t nearly enough. This type of leadership requires the ability to read people and situations well and react accordingly. 

The Six Styles of Situational Leadership

Situational leadership isn’t a “one size fits all” style of leadership. In fact, the Goleman Theory of Situational Leadership tells us there are six different styles within the umbrella term of situational leadership. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence is well-known for his many situational leadership articles and is a recognized leader in the field of leadership training. According to Goldman, the style of leadership you should choose depends on the personality of the people you are working with as well as the project and situation itself. The six situational leadership styles outlined by Mr. Goldman are:

  1. Coaching leadership: This type of leadership style emphasizes personal development as well as learning job-related skills. Coaching leadership is best suited when working with employees who are open to change and in-tune with their strengths and weaknesses. A coaching leader may encourage team embers to read specific self-improvement or business books or have a team-building outing to a leadership class.
  2. Pacesetting leadership: Pacesetting leaders set very high expectations for their employees. This leadership style works best when working with high achievers who are goal-oriented. Typically, a pacesetting leader leads by example. The leader doesn’t expect anything of their employees that they aren’t willing to do themselves. One of the downsides to this type of leadership is that employees can quickly burn out and become discouraged if they fail to meet lofty goals.
  3. Democratic leadership: Those using a democratic leadership style seek to give employees or followers a vote in almost every decision. This practice fosters loyalty and team cohesiveness. However, this process is very time-consuming and can be problematic when used in fast-paced situations or when a deadline is looming.
  4. Affiliative leadership: Employees always come first with affiliative leadership. This style is useful in situations where morale is already very low and it can help to build self-esteem and confidence in team members. However, since there are no set goals or expectations with this leadership style, job performance and productivity may suffer.
  5. Authoritative leadership: Authoritative leaders are traditional “from the top” leaders who expect their employees and team members to follow them loyally and unconditionally. This style is useful where quick decisions are needed or when an organization drifts and lacks focus. However, too many authoritative leaders are hard on employee morale and even lead to a high turnover rate.
  6. Coercive leadership: Coercive leaders simply tell their team members what to do. While this leadership style may not seem ideal at first glance, it’s useful in disasters and in organizations that are undergoing a complete revamping, where someone needs to take charge and get things done quickly.
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Situational Leadership Advantages and Disadvantages

Like any leadership style, situational leadership has some definite advantages and disadvantages. Some of the advantages of situational leadership include the ability to adapt to most situations, especially in cases where you don’t know exactly what you might face until you’re in the middle of a project, meeting, or an interview. Situational leadership also makes employees feel more comfortable and accepted since the manager uses a style that best matches each person’s personality. This type of leadership style promotes team-building and collaboration since there is less “from the top” management in situational leadership.

However, situational leadership does have its drawbacks. Situational leadership is more likely to be reactive and cause a manager to focus on today’s issues. Consequently, this also causes managers to neglect long-term planning and strategy. Additionally, teams led by situational leaders are, by definition, very dependent on that leader’s style for development. If that leader leaves the company for whatever reason, it may be difficult to find another person to step in where the departed leader left off. Situational leadership can also be confusing to team members. Since the manager uses a different leadership style with different team members, the message they try to convey may be confusing.

Situational Leadership Examples

Before he retired in 2008, Bill Gates of Microsoft was known as a controlling, autocratic manager. This style allowed him to make quick decisions which was a definite advantage in the competitive technology industry. However, he has been quoted as saying that he often had to soften his natural leadership style because he understood that being too autocratic is discouraging to being creative and developing new ideas and programs. Since Microsoft has been known as an innovator almost since it’s beginnings, it’s safe to say that Gates was successful in blending these two styles.

When you think of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, you probably think of his bold, commanding speeches. He definitely used an autocratic leadership style. However, what arguably made him most successful was his use of a collaborative leadership style. In the darkest days of World War II, Churchill often walked around the bombed-out neighborhoods and visited war-worn troops to give messages that he was one of them. His use of situational leadership boosted morale and solidified Britain in their fight.

The founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, Mary Kay Ash, had to be somewhat autocratic to thrive in the male-dominated 1960s business world. However, her company was built on the premise to encourage sales members and make everyone she met feel important. She used a coaching leadership style to help develop and encourage the women on her team. This helped her grow the company from a handful of women to millions of beauty consultants.

Situational Leadership Training Outline

The often-quoted phrase, “good leaders are born, not made” couldn’t be further from the truth in today’s modern business world. Leadership, including situational leadership, is a skill that can be taught and improved upon as you go through your business career. In fact, there are several things that you can do individually or with your team to improve your situational leadership skills. 

Situational leadership training activities

  1. Jumping Ship: This is a group situational leadership training activity. Each participant makes up a list of real-life work situations where one of the six situational leadership styles would be disastrous and require a good leader to abandon their typical leadership style in favor of one that better matches the situation (i.e.jump ship). After everyone has made their list, the group discusses the choices.
  2. Role Models: This exercise can be done alone or in a group. For this activity, participants make a list of their role models and match them to the models’ predominant leadership style and the characteristics of situational leadership that they see in the person’s achievements. Then, in a group, the participants can compare lists and offer comments

Knowing the basics of situational leadership and situational leadership theory can go a long way towards making you a more effective business manager or team leader. Being aware of the different leadership styles and when to use each can help you adapt more easily and effectively to new challenges, new personalities, and new projects.

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