By Ashleigh Gunter | October 2, 2019

“In the past, a leader was a boss. Today’s leaders can no longer lead solely based on positional power.”

– Ken Blanchard

Our understanding of leadership must continually evolve to remain relevant and impactful in today’s business climate. One method of leadership that develops an ability to meet the ever-changing needs of an organization and its employees is called Situational Leadership.

Situational Leadership is adaptive, flexible, weighs variables, and provides us with the tools to best suit our current circumstances and meet our desired goals. A leader who is capable of this approach will embody the following five characteristics (1):

1) Insight: A Situational Leader understands the needs of their employees, then adjusts their leadership style to meet those needs.

2) Flexibility: A Situational Leader moves seamlessly from one leadership style to another to meet current demands.

3) Trust: A Situational Leader gains the trust and confidence of their employees.

4) Problem Solving: A Situational Leader solves problems using the most applicable leadership style for the current challenge they are facing.

5) Coach: A Situational Leader is capable of evaluating the maturity and competence of their employees and then applies the best strategy to enhance their employees’ skill sets and goals.

Two researchers, Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, developed the Situational Leadership model during the mid-1970s and subsequently developed separate, revised models. The underlying concepts of their models focus on adaptive leadership styles tailored to a group’s maturity/developmental level.

Pictured below is a graphic, combining elements from the Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory and Blanchard’s revised Situational Leadership Theory II. It depicts four leadership styles on a supportive/directive scale, based on the developmental level of those being led: Delegating, Supporting, Coaching, and Directing.

Next, let’s discuss situational factors to consider when determining the best leadership style to use (2).

Begin by considering interpersonal factors. For example, a group lacking in efficiency and productivity might benefit from a style emphasizing direction, organization, and clearly defined roles. On the other hand, a highly productive group might benefit from a more democratic style allowing greater independence and input in decision making.

Secondly, you should consider the actual task at hand. A Situational Leader needs to have a clear idea of what a task entails to successfully guide a team or employee to accomplish it. This may seem like an obvious point, but it is not uncommon for a leader to lack the appropriate understanding of what’s required to complete a particular task/project, leaving a major gap in their ability to lead effectively.

Thirdly, consider the maturity levels of each individual based on ability and willingness. For example, assigning a project to a member who is willing but lacks the appropriate ability level is a recipe for failure (and vice versa). This is why the developmental levels were a key element of the Hersey-Blanchard theories.

And lastly, consider the situation you’re facing—hence, situational leadership theories. There are also instances when the situation itself will override all of the above factors. To help us visualize this, we overlaid the graphic below with some situational examples:

If there were an innovative change occurring in your organization, you may want to use a Delegating approach to encourage idea generation and collaborative teamwork. An interpersonal conflict may be best served by a Supporting approach, offering a high level of support but low amount of directives. A major reorganization prompting new processes/structure may call for a Coaching style with high support and high directives to guide your team through the changes. A major crisis would require you to immediately default to a Directing approach, overriding all other situational factors.

An additional Situational Leadership style that is helpful to use or combine with the Hersey-Blanchard model is called the Just Ask leadership approach (3). The Just Ask approach uses questions to increase alignment, engagement and accountability. It’s best used when working with a group of varying abilities or if you’re unsure about an individual’s ability.

The Just Ask approach requires comfort in not knowing. Leaders often find it difficult to allow their team to work through situations instead of just providing the answers for them. This approach is a great tool to release an answer-providing habit and learn how to ask more questions to guide your team to their own solutions.

There are four styles of questioning in the Just Ask approach: Professor, Judge, Innovator, and Director. The Professor style is best used to generate ideas, build understanding, and expand insight. The Judge style is most helpful when analyzing and prioritizing ideas, reaching decisions, and focusing on shared understanding. The Innovator style is helpful when exploring new directions, identifying opportunities, improving current methods, and rallying a team. The Director style is best used when implementing a plan, focusing your team to get specific results, and to spark action.

Here are some sample questions:

Ultimately, the key learning to take away from Situational Leadership approaches is that is a necessity in today’s business landscapes. By adding to our leadership skills toolbox, we can continue to grow in our own abilities and encourage our employees’ growth in the process. This will, in turn, promote growth and innovation in our teams and organizations.





Interested in what we have to say? Check out our article on Employee Engagement.

Ashleigh partners with her clients to solve their most challenging problems. Her practice focuses on the intersection between strategy and people. She has deep experience in strategy development and implementation of key strategies, organizational design, executive coaching and change management. Ashleigh combines her experience, an understanding of organizational culture and a practical mindset to meet her clients’ needs.

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