Situational Leadership: An Overview


Today is the second post in a multi-week series on the Situational Leadership model; you can read the first post by clicking here.

Last week I suggested that good leaders lead differently depending on the situation, and you may be wondering how that’s even possible.  Let’s start by looking at things from the perspective of the follower. Here’s a real-world example…

In thinking about how I complete tasks around my home there are some I’m good at while there are some I’m not so good at; there are some I enjoy while there are others I despise.  Which means if someone was going to teach (or lead) me to successfully complete a task at home, they would most likely interact with me differently depending on the task and what my readiness to do the task was.  As an example, let’s take plumbing… When it comes to working on plumbing, well, let’s just say I’m kind of like this:

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Needless to say, I generally call the plumber…

But electricity is another story.  I don’t mind working with electricity, but I’m also not very confident doing it.  About 10 years ago I had to install an outside outlet at our house, including running conduit about 50 feet out into the yard where the outlet was going to be.  What did I do?  I called a friend of mine who was an engineer and he came over to help me.  Actually, he taught me – he told me step by step what to do, he checked behind me to ensure it was correct, and – voila! After several hours of work I had electricity in my backyard!

Another thing I enjoy doing outside is working with wood.  I’m much more comfortable with this than with either electricity or plumbing, and yet I’m also not a professional carpenter.  When it came time to build a treehouse for my kids they put in their request:

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I called my father, who is a more accomplished than I am, and we worked together to build them something that was, well, close (notice it does have lights :))…

Now when it comes to cutting my lawn, I enjoy working in the yard.  I’m one of those people who grew up cutting grass because, well, when I was about 8 Dad said it was time to start.  So I’ve been doing it for about 20 years or and so I’m pretty competent.  I don’t need much support or direction (outside of occasionally someone at home saying, “Are you going to do the grass this weekend?”) I can handle mowing the lawn on my own.

Here’s the point…  If someone was going to teach (or lead) me to complete home tasks like fixing a plumbing problem, installing a ceiling fan, building a new deck, or mowing the lawn, they would have to use a different style to help me in each of those tasks.  And if they did, that person would be using Situational Leadership.  One person has defined Situational Leadership as when leaders “choose a mix of directiveness and personal interaction that accomplishes two things.  First, it matches the [follower’s] readiness so that the task at hand can be accomplished.  Second, it helps move the [follower] toward being more self-managing.”1  (on a side note, I would argue that’s also good teaching…  Good teachers “choose a mix of direction and encouragement that accomplishes two things.  First, it matches the student’s readiness so the task can be accomplished, and, second, it helps support that student toward becoming more self-sufficient on that task.”)

Think of it this way…  Picture two axes that form a four-box matrix.  On the horizontal axis we put the word “Direction” and on the vertical axis we put the word “Support”.  As you read from left to right the level of direction (the horizontal axis) indicates increasing the amount of direction (detail) provided to the follower, while moving from bottom to top indicates increasing the level of support (feedback, encouragement, etc) provided to the follower:

Image 1.pngUsing this image, then, we realize that there are multiple ways to look at how support and direction intersect with each other.  At it’s most basic there are four areas in which leaders can operate.  In the lower right quadrant a leader would be giving more direction and less support while in the upper left the leader would be giving less direction and more supportLike this:

Image 2.pngWhat do those terms mean?  Well, direction is the level of detail given to someone.  At the “more” end of the spectrum it’s my friend telling me, “Hey – make sure you turn off the fuse before working on the electricity, and then don’t cross the positive and negative lines.”  At the “less” end it’s someone saying, “Hey, are you going to get the lawn mowed this weekend?”  Support is the same way – at the low end it is someone focusing on helping me get the job done without offering a lot of explanation (because I may not be ready for), while at the high end it’s someone taking the time to explain how and why to do something a given way, it’s giving regular feedback and encouragement.  Good leaders use different levels of each of those ingredients as they equip and power someone to successfully complete a task.  And they move between these four area to do that.

Next week we’ll look at how leaders actually choose what type (style) of leadership to use in a given situation on a specific task.  For right now, though, I’d encourage you to answer this question: “What are some similarities between this model and good teaching?”

1Grow, G. (1991). Teaching learners to be self-directed. Adult Education Quarterly, 41(3), 125–149.

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