Situational Leadership: Listen Before You Lead

I was once hired into an organization that was experiencing a time of high employee turnover, combined with low employee morale (not surprising!), resulting in a lower level of performance and support. In my leadership role, this context required me to be much more directive in my approach. I had to establish clear expectations, policies, and procedures, with frequent communication and consistent enforcement, while building relationships. It reflected the classic management principle of “you can’t expect what you don’t inspect.” The result was significant growth in the level of competence and morale, resulting in improved performance, happier employees, and a better product.

Then I transitioned to a new organization, and found myself in an environment of highly competent and loyal employees. In this new environment, I knew that the same type of directive approach was not the right way to lead, because these employees already knew what to do and were doing it well. Instead, I needed to take much more of supportive role in my leadership, with more back-and-forth dialogue and input from the employees. Rather than directing their tasks (they were doing a great job of that before I got there), I focused on building relationships, reinforcing and affirming their competence, and giving them support. I had to modify my style of leadership to match the culture and situation in which I found myself. This is called situational leadership.

The situational approach to leadership was first developed by Hersey and Blanchard, and is just what the name suggests – adjusting the leadership style to fit to the situation. As Peter Northouse says in Leadership: Theory and Practice, “The premise of the theory is that different situations demand different kinds of leadership. From this perspective, to be an effective leader requires that a person adapt his or her style to the demands of different situations” (p. 99).

There are two different sides in situational leadership: the leader and the subordinates. The leader’s side involves the leader style, or the behavior that the leader is attempting to exhibit in order to influence others, which includes both task behavior (“directive”) and relationship behavior (“supportive”). These behavior patterns are classified in four different categories, or leadership styles:

  • Directing (S1) = high level of “directive,” low level of “supportive”
  • Coaching (S2) = high level of “directive,” high level of “supportive”
  • Supporting (S3) = low level of “directive,” high level of “supportive”
  • Delegating (S4) = low level of “directive,” low level of” supportive”

The subordinates’ side in the situation involves their development level, or “the degree to which the subordinates have the competence and commitment necessary to accomplish a given task or activity” (Northouse, p. 102). These behavior patterns are also classified in four different categories:

  • D1 = low level of competence, high level of commitment
  • D2 = medium level of competence, low level of commitment
  • D3 = medium/high level of competence, medium level of commitment
  • D4 = high level of competence, high level of commitment

Situational leadership happens when the leadership style is adapted to match the development level of the subordinates, and each level of subordinate development corresponds with a specific matching leadership style: “D1” subordinate level requires “S1” leadership style, “D2” development level requires “S2” leadership style, and so on. The idea is that differing styles of leadership work better in different situations or circumstances. That means that leadership will be most effective when the leader is able to “accurately diagnose the development level of subordinates in a task situation and then exhibit the prescribed leadership style that matches that situation” (Northouse, p. 119). And keep in mind, this can change from organization to organization, but it can also happen at various times or in various situations within the life and culture of the same organization.

At it’s very simplest, this means that a leader must enter into each organizational context and situation and be able to first listen, and then communicate. That involves asking question and listening to the answers, observing and then “listening” to what your eyes see, and having open and safe conversations. That then needs to be followed with clear communication, both verbal and nonverbal, of expectations, affirmation, correction, instructions, and so on. Listen, then show and tell. Listen first, so that your showing and telling are the right leadership for the situation and for the followers.

I have personally experienced the application of situational leadership. Having worked in several organizations (and having gone through different phases within the same organization), it makes sense to me that leadership styles have to change to match different situations. The same approach won’t work in every situation, therefore effective leadership will analyze the culture, or environment, or situation, and adjust the leadership style to best fit. When you do that, you are using “situational leadership.”

Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.



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