Situational Leadership in Action (Part 1)

Last week I introduced the leadership style matrix and talked about how it provides a framework for thinking about leading differently in different situations (hence the term situational leadership).  Today we’re going to take a look at how leaders know which quadrant to lead from.

To answer the question, “How should I lead in this situation?” one must be able to first identify what the situation is and figure out how prepared the follower is to be successful.  Remember my examples last week: fixing plumbing, installing an outdoor electrical socket, building a treehouse, and mowing the lawn.  I put all four of those examples under the larger umbrella of “work around the house”.  For different jobs around the house I had different levels of readiness, and, hence, I really need different levels of leadership.

So there are four basic steps to using the SitLead model, and today we’ll spend our time looking at and understanding the first two.  The four steps are:

  1. Identify the task
  2. Diagnose readiness
  3. Match and communicate leadership style
  4. Manage the movement

A key concept in understanding the SitLead model is that if step 1 is not done accurately – or skipped entirely – the model falls apart.  Using examples from the last post, if you were my leader you would need to lead me differently if I was installing plumbing, building a tree house, or mowing the lawn.

And that’s step 1 – it really is as simple as that.  In a classroom it’s identifying the standard to be learned that day, and in leadership it’s as simple as answering the question, “What is it I am asking my follower to do right now?” Once the task is identified then the leader can move on to step 2, which is to identify the follower’s readiness in successfully completing that task.  Do they need detailed directions, can they handle it on their own, or is it somewhere in-between?  Do they need a lot of encouragement and support from me or something more along the lines of a simple check-in and a “way-to-go!” at the end?

When diagnosing readiness there are two basic ideas that influence someone’s readiness to do a task, and, as a result, indicate the leadership style the leader will use.  The two ideas are ability and willingness.  If we recreate the matrix from last week, but use ability and willingness as the axes, we get this:

Image 2.png

While this diagram illustrates how the two areas of ability and willingness interact, we need to make some changes to it in order to make it align with the leadership matrix.  So let’s do this: since we thought of leadership style as a matrix, let’s think of a person’s readiness as a continuum, with ability being the primary indicator and willingness being the secondary indicator:

Image 3.png

So you’ll see here immediately we have two sides to the model: on the right is someone who has low ability while on the left side is someone who has high ability.  Just to clean up the model a little bit let’s change the terms to simplify things:

Image 4.png

Defining these two terms (Ability and Willingness) is key to understanding this step.  The former is easier to define but possibly harder (for us in education) to accept.  Ability is defined by someone performing at a sustained, acceptable level. It is answering the question, “Is this person currently doing what is expected and doing it well?”  If the answer is “Yes” then we diagnose their readiness as “Able”; if the answer is “No” then we diagnose their readiness as “Unable”.  This is crucial to understanding the model.  Ability and capability are not synonymous.  Just because someone can do something does not mean that they are doing something.  Go back to my example of fixing plumbing.  Am I capable of fixing plumbing?  Well, with enough training and support, probably.  But am I able to fix my currently leaking toilet?  No, I am not.  And so I need someone to lead me based off my capability, not off my ability.

Let’s apply this to the classroom: just because a student has the potential (capability) to learn a concept or demonstrate a skill does not mean they currently know it or are demonstrating it.  Every teacher I know believes that students can learn.  And at the same time every teacher I know also struggles to figure out how to support students when they aren’t learning.  That is the difference between Able and Capable.

The second term (Willingness) is diagnosed after diagnosing ability.  Once we determine ability we have to answer the question, “Is this person willing to perform the task?”  If they are then we diagnose their readiness as “Willing”; if they are not then we diagnose their readiness as “Unwilling”.  Willingness itself is a vague term, so let’s clarify what we mean by that…  Someone who is Willing is confident, motivated, and committed to doing the task.  Someone who is Unwilling is lacking in one or more of those three areas (ie, they might be unconfident, unmotivated, or uncommitted – but they don’t necessarily have to be all three).

I think an example is probably needed at this point… Let’s go back to my previous examples and see how we would diagnose me:

  • Fixing Plumbing: Am I currently able to fix a plumbingR1.png problem? The answer is no, so I’m unable. Am I willing to fix a plumbing problem?  No – I hate plumbing.  So I am Unwilling.  My readiness level for plumbing is:


  • Running an electrical outlet: Am I currently able to run an electrical outlet?The answer is no, partly because in that specific example I had never done it before, so I’m unable. But am I willing to do it? R2.png Yes, in the example I provided I was perfectly willing – but I needed support and guidance.  So my readiness level for running an electrical outlet outside is:


  • Building a treehouse: Am I currently able to build an outdoor structure with wood?  The answer was yes – I have built decks, swing sets, and other outdoor “stuff” with wood, so I’m able.  Am I willing to doit?  Yes, I’m willing,but I’m also unconfident since I have never done it beforeR3.png For the same of simplicity, since “unconfident” isn’t a word we use often, let’s say I’m “insecure“).   So since I am insecure – even though I might want to do it – I am unwilling.  My readiness level is:


  • Finally, let’s look at mowing the grass: Am I currently able to mow my lawn?. The R4.pnganswer is yes – so I am Able.  Am I willing to mow my lawn?  The answer is yes – I am confident I can do it, I’m committed to making it happen, and I’m motivated to do it.  So my readiness level is:


Once readiness is identified then we can actually decide how to lead that person, but we’ll get to that next week.  For now, I’d encourage you to spend the next week thinking through these terms and seeing how it impacts your response to people around you – even if those people are students in your classroom.  Are they able to perform the task you’re asking them to do?  Are they willing (meaning are they confident, committed, and motivated)?  How might the answers to those two questions impact your interactions with them?

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