Situational leadership: Learn to develop it through examples

October 26, 2021 - 25 min read

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What is situational leadership?

Understanding the situational leadership model

What are the four styles of situational leadership?

What are some examples of when a situational leadership style might best be used?

What does a situational leader do?

What are some situational leadership examples?

Why is situational leadership effective?

What are the disadvantages of situational leadership?

Final thoughts on situational leadership examples

Situational leadership examples are all around you.

Just think back to early in your career.

Did you have a manager who explained things to you, guided you, and helped you in your role? When you didn't have much experience, this type of management style could have been instrumental to your success and career growth.

Fast forward to later in your career. You've gained the knowledge, skills, and expertise to fulfill your role and meet your goals with ease. In this scenario, you appreciate a manager that takes a more hands-off approach. One who empowers you to make your own decisions.

Different levels of expertise require different management styles. So, too, can different situations or tasks. A manager might let a high performer take charge of their own project. In contrast, a high-profile project or a crisis might dictate that a manager gets more involved.

Today’s fast-changing business environment requires managers to take a nimble and responsive approach to whatever is arising in their:

      • Team
      • Work environment
      • Organization

That’s the goal of the situational leadership model.

Let’s discuss the importance of situational leadership and explore some real-world examples.

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What is situational leadership?

Any great leader knows there are a lot of variables to consider when you work with a team. Each has their own:

Thinking about how we adjust our style in response to these variables is how we define situational leadership.

Situational leadership means adapting your management style to each unique situation or task to meet the needs of the team or team members.

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Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey developed the Situational Leadership Theory in 1969. They believe that there is no “one size fits all” leadership style. Instead, the model provides a framework for leaders to diagnose the development level of an employee or team. Once this is determined, they can adapt their leadership approach accordingly.

54 percent of leaders use only one leadership style, regardless of the situation, which means that 50 percent of the time, leaders are using the wrong leadership style to meet the needs of their people. 

 Ken Blanchard, Author of The One-Minute Manager

Understanding the situational leadership model

Situational leadership can help managers better adapt to their work environments and to the people they lead. The ability to adapt your leadership style is a vital skill every aspiring leader should master on their development journey.

The situational leadership model considers employee competence and commitment levels. These can vary across different challenges and performance areas. It also considers the complexity of the task and the level of direction and support required from the leader.

This flexibility allows leaders to meet each situation with the leadership style that will empower their employees and bring out the best in them.

Let’s look at an example of how the situational leadership model can be applied in the workplace.

Say you’ve got an employee under your wing that’s brand new to the company. You conclude that this new employee has little experience or expertise. In response to this, you adapt your leadership style accordingly.

This means leading them in a way that makes them feel at ease and builds their confidence.

For example, instead of delegating tasks to them, you take your time and show them how to perform a task. You’ll also want to supervise them more to make sure they’re on the right track. As they gain experience, you’ll eventually want to change your leadership style.

Leadership coaching can help you become a better leader no matter what leadership style you choose.  

What are the four styles of situational leadership?

Blanchard and Hersey’s situational leadership matrix describes four leadership behavioral styles. Each of these may be used, depending on the situation.

1. Telling (S1) — Telling, or directing, is useful when a team or team member requires close supervision and regular guidance. The leader makes decisions and directs the team or team members to their roles. This can include providing instructions to novice team members or taking charge in an emergency.

2. Selling (S2) — Selling, or persuading, is useful when a team or team member has some competence or when they are unmotivated. The leader is open to feedback and collaboration to boost the team or team member’s participation. Leaders using this style may help team members develop or improve their skills. This style can also encourage buy-in to a larger vision.

3. Participating (S3) — Participating, or sharing, is useful when a team or team member has the competence required to participate in planning and decision-making. Leaders adopt a more democratic leadership style, letting their teams make decisions in their areas of expertise.

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4. Delegating (S4) — Delegating is useful when a team or team member has a high level of competence and is self-motivated. Leaders leveraging this style will:

      • Set a vision
      • Outline desired outcomes
      • Grant clear authority

They will then get out of the way and let their team take over.

What are some examples of when a situational leadership style might best be used?

These situational leadership styles are most effective when paired with one of the four developmental levels of team members:

Low competence, high commitment (D1)

These are developing team members who may not yet have the specific skill set required for a task, but they have a high level of commitment. This might call for a more directive style (S1) in which the leader tells the employee what to do, how, and when to do it.

What can help? Connect them to more experienced peers and side-by-side coaching to speed up skills development.

Some competence, low commitment (D2)

These are team members who may have some skills but not at the level required to be successful in performing a task. They also aren’t fully engaged in the mission. This often calls for a leadership style where the leader coaches team members in problem-solving and engages them in the process (S2).

What can help? Show commitment by recognizing their specific contributions and supporting their development needs.

High competence, variable commitment (D3)

These developed team members are highly skilled and sometimes have more expertise than the leader in their field. However, they may be experiencing a lack of drive or confidence around performing a particular task.

The most appropriate leadership style to use here is one that supports team members and encourages participation (S3). The skills and knowledge of the team can be applied to the challenge at hand.

What can help? Tap into a team member’s desire for impact and sense of meaning or purpose.

High competence, high commitment (D4)

These developed team members are highly skilled, often more so than the leader, and they have a high level of motivation and commitment. The leadership style that best supports this situation is delegation (S4). The leader empowers team members to work independently toward achieving agreed-upon goals.

What can help? Share more about organizational goals so team members can make more informed decisions.

What does a situational leader do?

Situational leadership requires leaders to have multiple leadership styles and move among them. This might require practice to develop.

Leaders may have a “comfort zone” or a natural tendency toward a particular management style. So might the organization. This can make it challenging to develop the full scope needed to be an effective situational leader.

It’s important for leaders to stretch this way. Different situations require different leadership styles to bring out the best results. Like we need many tools to build a house, we need multiple leadership approaches to meet the challenges of today’s changing work environment. It often takes conscious effort to develop these skills.

A great leader should develop the following characteristics of situational leadership, including:

      • Clear direction. Situational leaders must be effective at providing the level of support and direction team members need.

      • Ability to encourage participation. Situational leaders engage in behaviors that create psychological safety. They provide opportunities for team members to share their thoughts, experiences, and input. They also have the skills required to effectively delegate authority to team members as appropriate.

      • Coaching skills. To be most effective, situational leaders need to develop their ability to coach at a wide range of developmental levels. This skill allows them to meet team members where they are and support them in getting where they need to be.

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What are some situational leadership examples?

Leaders such as US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, General Colin Powell, Head Coach John Wooden, and Head Coach Patricia Sue Summit can all attribute at least a part of their success to the use of a situational leadership style.

Let’s look at each of these leaders in detail.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower was the supreme allied commander during World War II. He then became the President of the United States. His success in each of these roles is often attributed to his ability to leverage different leadership styles in each situation.

During the war, he became known for his ability to balance “the interests and egos of a galaxy of generals and political leaders.” He was also known to walk among the troops, shaking hands and boosting spirits.

His ability to adapt to various situations and people helped him become a great diplomat and leader.

Colin Powell

Colin Powell is a former:

      • General in the US Army 
      • Secretary of state
      • National security advisor
      • Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

His roles have dictated that he be a decisive leader, and his military rank assumes that his subordinates follow orders.

Still, he believed in taking a situational leadership approach with his commanders in the army. He recognized that everyone he worked with had different:

      • Experience levels
      • Skills 
      • Strengths
      • Weaknesses

He shares, “I am a situational leader, and I adjust my style, within limits, to the strengths and weaknesses of my subordinates”. Powell further explains that he understands each human is different, and that the best leaders are those who can figure out how to get the best out of each individual.

John Wooden

John Wooden is the former UCLA men’s basketball coach. Many considered him one of the best in American history. Under his leadership, the Bruins won 10 championships, seven of them consecutive. They managed an 88-game winning streak over three seasons, despite having a team that was constantly changing.

Wooden’s ability and willingness to adjust his leadership style to adapt to the changing team dynamics and needs of his players can be summed up in his quote: “When you’re through learning, you’re through.”

Pat Summitt

Patricia Sue Summitt was head coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteer basketball team for 38 years. She was named the 11th greatest coach — of any sport — of all time.

Her college basketball team won eight national titles and over 84% of games over her 38-year career as head coach. She was also named head coach of the USA Basketball Women’s National Team that brought home the gold medal from the 1984 Olympics.

She accomplished this by:

      • Setting high standards for her team members
      • Getting to know each one
      • Pushing them to their personal limits

Why is situational leadership effective?

Situational leadership is a flexible leadership style that adapts to the needs of employees and situations. It comes very intuitively to many leaders and is straightforward to apply. Leaders evaluate the situation and decide which leadership style is most supportive.

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Situational leaders tend to stay in close communication with team members. They assess and adjust their approach to provide what’s needed to support success. This helps them build strong relationships with the team. As a result, it creates a better work environment in which employees feel valued as individuals.

What are the disadvantages of situational leadership?

Like all leadership styles, there can be some disadvantages to situational leadership:

      • It can create confusion. Depending on how a situational leader communicates, this leadership style can cause confusion within teams and organizations. This happens if employees perceive the leader to be inconsistent in their leadership approach.

      • It is typically focused on short-term goals. Situational leaders tend to respond to what is arising in the present moment. This can cause a disconnect from the larger vision. Good leaders will take this into account and keep long-term goals in sight, even when handling short-term issues.

      • It risks putting too much responsibility on the leader. Situational leadership requires the ability to discern and assess what’s needed in any given situation. This allows the leader to respond appropriately.

        When evaluating the competence of each team member, leaders may not have all the knowledge needed to make an accurate assessment. They may even be misled, especially if an employee is trying to appear knowledgeable.

        Sometimes leaders confuse emotional maturity and confidence with experience-based maturity and competence.

Final thoughts on situational leadership examples

Can you think of any situational leadership examples you’ve come across in your career?

If you can, chances are, this type of leader made you feel supported and valued. The ability to adapt to different people and situations can make for a more versatile leader who does well in a diverse team.

But that’s not to say that other types of leadership can’t work. Every leader, as every team member, is different. Every leader has their own style, strengths, and weaknesses.

Sometimes, being aware of the different styles can make a leader more aware of their own. They can even borrow bits and pieces from each style to improve their leadership skills.

Becoming a better leader can benefit your career, team, and organization. If you’re determined to grow as a leader and individual, a BetterUp coach can help. Schedule a customized demo today.

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Published October 26, 2021

Judy Wolf, MS, PCC

Executive & Team Coach

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