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Situational leadership examples and how to develop this management style

Are you wondering what the term “situational leadership” means, why it’s important, and how it applies in the workplace? This article provides a situational leadership definition, an overview of the four situational leadership styles, and situational leadership examples so you can recognize it when you see it.

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What is situational leadership?

What are the four leadership 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

“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
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Think back to early in your career. Did you have a manager who explained things to you, guided you, and helped you stay on track in your role? Perhaps they gave you step-by-step instructions on how to complete a task, or checked in with you daily to answer questions. When you didn’t have much experience or expertise, this type of management style could have been instrumental to your success and career growth.

Fast forward to later in your career, once you’d gained the knowledge, skills, and expertise to fulfil your role and meet your goals with ease. A manager that explained why and how things were done a certain way, constantly checked on your status, and frequently offered unsolicited advice might be considered a micromanager. 

Different levels of expertise require different management styles. So, too, can different situations or tasks. While a manager might normally let a top performer take charge of their own projects, a high-profile project within the company or a crisis situation might dictate that a manager get more involved. 

And there’s no need for it to be all or nothing. Leadership and management dimensions tend to exist on a spectrum. 

Today’s fast-changing business environment requires managers to take a nimble and responsive approach to whatever is arising in their team, work environment, competitive market, and organization. As any good leader knows, there are a lot of variables to consider when working with a team of people, each with their own background, personality, learning style, experience, ego, and motivators. Thinking about dialing up or down across multiple leadership dimensions in response to these variables is the crux of how we define situational leadership.

Situational leadership can help managers better adapt to their work environments, and to the people they lead.

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What is situational leadership?

Situational leadership is a way of adjusting one’s management style to adapt to each situation or task, and the needs of the team or team member.

The Situational Leadership Theory was developed by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey in 1969, under the notion 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 for a task and adapt their leadership approach accordingly. 

The situational leadership model considers employee competence and commitment levels, which may 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 that arises with the leadership style that will bring out the best in employees and give them the highest chance of success.

skills-high-performing-teams

What are the four leadership styles of situational leadership?

Blanchard and Hersey’s situational leadership matrix describes four leadership behavioral styles that may be used, depending upon 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 member on their role. 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, but perhaps not enough to be successful, or when they are unmotivated. The leader is open to feedback and collaboration in order to boost the team or team member’s participation. Leaders utilizing this style may be helping team members to develop or improve their skills or encouraging 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 actively participate in planning and decision making. Leaders using this style are typically collaborative in their approach to problem solving and decision making, letting their teams and team members make decisions within their areas of expertise.
  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, and then get out of the way.
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What are some examples of when a situational leadership style might best be used?

These situational leadership styles are most effective when appropriately 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 to the task itself. This might call for a more directive style (S1) in which the leader tells the employee what to do, and how and when to do it. What can help? Connecting them to more experienced peers and side-by-side coaching in the flow of work to accelerate 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, and who aren’t fully engaged in the mission. This often calls for a leadership style where the leader coaches team members in how to solve problems and engages them in the process (S2). What can help? Demonstrate commitment to the individual by recognizing their specific contributions, supporting their development needs, and talking openly about your own search for meaning and purpose in the work. 
  • High competence, variable commitment (D3) – These developed team members are highly skilled, sometimes more expert than the leader in their field, but 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) so the skills and knowledge of the team can be applied to the challenge at hand. What can help? Tapping 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, sometimes 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), where the leader empowers team members to make decisions and take independent action (within clearly defined boundaries) toward achieving agreed-upon goals. What can help? Share more context about the organizational goals and constraints so the team member can make more informed decisions and better develop approaches that achieve the organization’s goals.

What does a situational leader do?

Situational leadership requires leaders to have multiple leadership styles and to move flexibly among them. This might require practice to develop. Leaders may have a “comfort zone” or a natural tendency toward a particular management style – and 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, though, because different situations and people require different approaches and leadership styles to bring out the best results. Just like we need multiple tools to build a house, we need multiple leadership styles to meet the challenges that arise in today’s rapidly changing and increasingly diverse work environment. It often takes conscious effort to develop these skills. 

A strong leader should develop the following characteristics of situational leadership include:

  • Flexibility – A situational leader is paying close attention to the changing needs of the team, task, and organization and adjusts their leadership style as needed to bring out the best in team members and ensure successful outcomes.
  • Active listening – In order to identify what is going on and accurately diagnose and provide what team members need, a situational leader must constantly leverage their active listening skills and seek to understand.
  • Clear direction – Situational leaders must be effective at providing the level of support and direction team members require.
  • Encourage participation – Situational leaders engage in behaviors that create psychological safety and opportunities for team members to share their thoughts, experience, 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 a wide range of developmental levels so they can 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 U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, General Colin Powell, Head Coach John Wooden, and Head Coach Patricia Sue Summit can all attribute at least a portion of their success to the use of a situational leadership style. 

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower was the supreme allied commander during World War II and, later, 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, eventually winning two terms as President of the United States. 

Colin Powell

Colin Powell is a former general in the U.S. Army, Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, and 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 they all had different personalities, experience levels, skills, strengths, and weaknesses.

He shares, “I am a situational leader and I adjust my style, within limits, to the strengths and weaknesses of my subordinates, so I understand what they can and what they can’t do, and I understand where I have to compensate for their weaknesses and where I can take advantage of their strengths-—each one is different. As long as they get the job done efficiently and in a more than satisfactory manner, I am prepared to live with the differences that exist between the human beings. They are human beings, they’re not clones, they’re all different and I think the best leaders are the ones that can analyze a subordinate or a human being and how to figure out how to get the best out of that individual.”

John Wooden

John Wooden is the former UCLA men’s basketball coach, and considered by many to be one of the best in American history. Under his leadership, the Bruins won 10 championships, seven of them consecutive. They even racked up an 88-game winning streak spanning three seasons, even with 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, and named the 11th greatest coach - of any sport - of all time

Her ever-changing college basketball team won eight national titles and 1,098 out of 1,306 games over her 38-year career as head coach. She was also named head coach for the U.S. women’s basketball team that brought home the gold from the 1984 Olympics. 

She accomplished this by setting unrelenting standards for her team members and getting to know each one individually, pushing them to their personal limit.

Why is situational leadership effective?

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

Situational leaders tend to stay in close communication with team members, constantly assessing and adjusting their approach to provide what is needed to support success. This helps them to build strong relationships with the team, which in turn creates a better work environment in which employees feel valued as individuals.

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What are the disadvantages of situational leadership?

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

  • Can create confusion: Depending on how clearly a situational leader communicates, this leadership style can cause confusion within teams and organizations if employees perceive the leader to be arbitrary and inconsistent in their leadership approach. 
  • Typically focused on short-term goals: The tendency for situational leaders to focus on responding to what is arising in the present moment can cause a disconnect from the larger vision. A strong situational leader will take this into account and develop their ability to keep long-term goals in sight, even when handling short-term issues.
  • Risks putting too much responsibility on the leader: Situational leadership requires the ability to discern and assess what is needed in any given situation so the leader can respond appropriately. When evaluating the competence and commitment of each team member, leaders may not have all the skills or knowledge needed to make an accurate assessment – or they may be misled, especially if an employee is trying to appear knowledgeable. Sometimes leaders confuse emotional maturity and confidence with experience-based maturity and competence. 

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Final thoughts on situational leadership examples

The ability to adapt to different people and situations can make for a more versatile, effective leader who does well in a diverse team and dynamic work environment. 

But that’s not to say that other leadership styles can’t work. Every leader is different—just as every team member is different—and may have their own style, strengths, and weaknesses. Sometimes, simply being aware of the different styles can make a leader more aware of their own style, borrowing bits and pieces to improve their leadership skills.