The situational leadership style involves changing one’s leadership style to match the needs of the circumstances and the profiles of the team. It’s all about flexibility.
As circumstances change and the people on a team can be completely different, using one style of leadership is going to be ineffective, maybe even disastrous. Therefore, it is best to be flexible and modify one’s leadership style to match the project and people.
For example, projects can start out as complex and the team unconfident. So, a leader needs to be directive and a skilled motivator and trainer. However, as the project progresses and the team becomes more familiar with the tasks, the leader needs to change and become more hands-off.
Definition of Situational Leadership
According to Hersey and Blanchard (1969), there are four approaches that leaders should adopt based on the characteristics of the team and situational factors.
Each of the following examples can be used by a person with a situational leadership style:
- Telling Style: If the task is simple and routine, then the leader should implement a telling style of leadership. This means they provide a lot of direction and oversight.
- Coaching Style: The coaching style should be used when the team lacks skills and is motivated, so they need training most of all.
- Participating Style: The participating style is useful when the team is experienced and knows what they are doing, but perhaps they need some confidence building.
- Delegating Style: A delegating style is best suited for a team that is self-motivated and highly skilled. They need very little direction or inspiration.
Situational Leadership Examples
1. Political Campaigning
Being able to adapt one’s leadership style is like being a bit of a chameleon. Every situation is different, so it is necessary to change one’s colors to match the environment.
In the arena of political campaigns, this usually means modifying political statements to match the voters being spoken to in that moment.
Working with the campaign staff brings another set of challenges. Those that work the phones need a direct, telling style of leadership. Those in charge of soliciting donations from the public may work more efficiently with a delegating approach. The personnel in charge of polling and public affairs may need to be watched more carefully, so implementing a participating style would be wise.
With so many demands needed to be juggled simultaneously, it is no wonder that campaigning is an exhaustive venture that only a few survive.
2. Pat Summitt
Pat Summitt was the women’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee for 38 years.
During that time, she led her teams to 8 NCAA national championships and coached the US Olympic team in 1984, winning the gold medal.
Although she was known for her tough exterior and a cold stare that would send shivers down anyone’s spine, being able to motivate 10 athletes is no easy feat.
Each player is different and will respond to different approaches. Pat Summitt had a unique ability to modify her approach just enough so that it would produce impressive results.
In addition, a career spanning nearly 40 years means enduring many changes: changes in the game, the rules, player characteristics, the fanbase, and of course, university Athletic Directors and Presidents.
Being able to survive and excel during all of those changes required a style that was able to analyze and adjust on a continuous basis.
3. President of the University Alumni Foundation
The president of a university’s Alumni Foundation plays a multifaceted and hugely important role at any school.
The president needs to form relationships with all alumni, engage in key fundraising efforts, and solicit funding from community leaders and government agencies.
Then there’s also the university president and the Advancement Office. The personality profile of each and every individual that make up those separate groups can be vastly different.
Not only do they have distinct personality characteristics, but each group will also have a different set of priorities and agendas.
Balancing all of those demands requires someone that is an expert in applying a situational leadership style. The university president will respond to a participating style, while the Advancement Office may prefer a hands-off, delegating approach.
Community leaders and government agencies may be completely satisfied with just being told how the money will be spent, a telling style of leadership.
4. Colin Powell
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Colin Powell was a U.S. general in the military and a political statesman.
He served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State, being the first African American to hold either position. His career was long and varied. He was known for his calm demeanor and moderate views, even when encircled by hard-liners and volatile personalities.
During his service he worked with a wide range of individuals, from soldiers, to commanders, to diplomats and the leaders of nations from all over the world. In his own words he characterizes his leadership as: “I am a situational leader, and I adjust my style, within limits, to the strengths and weaknesses of my subordinates.”
5. Primary School Principal
Managing a primary school can be both a joy and a pressure-packed occupation.
Teachers of first grade are quite different from those teaching six-graders. Similarly, biology teachers have completely different personalities from art and music teachers.
Balancing government requirements and educational standards, with the wants and needs of a large teaching staff is a continuous balancing act. Throw in the concerns of protective and demanding parents, and it is now wonder that principals need good medical insurance.
It is a job where the circumstances and people that must be dealt with can change on an hourly basis.
Some teachers may work best when the principal is a servant leader, while other teachers may actually prefer a more direct, telling autocratic leadership style. At the same time, most parents want to feel included, so the principal should exercise his participating style of leadership when meeting with them.
6. Phil Jackson, NBA Coach
Phil Jackson will go down in history as one of the greatest NBA coaches of all time and a truly transformational leader. He won a total of 11 national championships with two different teams.
During his many years, he coached some of the greatest basketball players in history: Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal.
Each of those greats were about as different as you could possibly imagine. Their personalities, temperaments, and style of play were all distinct.
Yet, he managed to motivate each one. He turned each player into the best possible version of themselves by utilizing his unique ability to understand each one as an individual.
For one player, he utilized a telling style, while for another that he trusted thoroughly, he delegated. At the same time, maybe even in the same huddle, he would adopt a participatory leadership style and seek the input of his most experienced player.
7. Producing a Video Game
The video game industry is vast and involves huge profits for companies that can produce a great game that really strikes a chord with players.
Today’s games can be incredibly realistic and be played simultaneously by different people from around the world.
Producing a successful video game is not a matter of luck. It requires multiple teams of individuals with a wide range of skillsets.
Programmers, storyline creators, graphic designers and tech specialists are all very different types of people. Some will need to be dealt with in a coaching style, while others may need more of a delegating approach.
Customizing one’s approach to match the personalities and abilities of various members of the team takes a unique individual. The project manager will have to switch from a coaching style to a participating style, and then later to a delegating style as the project progresses.
8. Professional Development
Professional development helps employees build or refine job-specific skills that are relevant to their career or a particular project.
For example, if the situational leader has determined that his team is highly motivated, but lack the necessary skills to get the job done, they may see to it that the team receives the necessary training (e.g., a coaching style of leadership).
The training could be in the area of technology, communication skills, project management, creativity and innovative thinking, or how to utilize certain software programs.
By participating in the training program, the staff will be better able to carry-out the project successfully. The key idea is that it takes a situational leadership mindset to recognize the needs of the project and characteristics of the team to know what is require to complete a successful project.
9. Hospitality Management
Managing a five-star hotel seems like it would be one of the most wonderful jobs in the world.
The working environment is luxurious, the locations are exotic, the guests sophisticated, and the lunch breaks delicious.
But if we take a step back, we see an ecosystem that is quite complex. Head chefs are known to be demanding and meticulous, while the wait staff are people-oriented and accommodating.
The accountant that does the books is quiet and hard to read, while the band that plays nightly is a group of extroverted partiers prone to getting into trouble.
The people that work the reception all want your job, and another term for “sophisticated guests” is “unreasonably picky”. Since the hotel is in an exotic location, it means adjusting to a culture that may take years to understand.
Adjusting one’s leadership style is sometimes like playing a never-ending game of management Tetris.
10. Jack Stahl, CEO of Coca-Cola and Revlon
Jack Stahl has been CEO of the world’s most respected multinational corporations, at Coca-Cola (1978–2000) and Revlon (2002–2006). Those are two completely different companies with vastly different customer bases and product lines.
As he explains in this interview with Strategy+Business, he has a very clear appreciation of situational leadership, stating that “…management is not a popularity contest…As a leader, once you see that people are doing that (focusing on details) successfully, then you pull back and worry about things from a more strategic perspective.”
Stahl is a firm believer in situational leadership. He goes on to state that in his opinion, a solid leader needs to be “…able to step into any circumstance and recognize whether they need to engage at the strategy level or dive into the nitty-gritty”.
Any great leader understands that most projects are complex and fluid. Circumstances change and the individuals on the team all have unique personalities and skillsets.
That is why Hersey and Blachard (1969) developed the situational leadership model, which postulates that there is no single best leadership style example. A good leader should adapt their style to the demands of the situation and people on their team.
Based on that analysis, one of four leadership styles should be exercised: telling, coaching, participating or delegating. Each of these four styles vary in terms of their task or people orientation.
Being flexible maximizes results and leads to success. That is why some of the most successful leaders in the world practice a situational leadership style.
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