Tag Archive for Northouse

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.



Be Relational

I believe that effective leadership, leadership that results in personal and organizational change, happens best within the context of relationship. In any situation or environment, there are leaders and followers; while those players can change, both – whether they be individuals or groups – are necessary. You cannot eliminate or ignore the fundamental fact that there is a relationship that exists between leaders and subordinates, therefore the effective leader will intentionally build and nurture relationships that benefit the leader, the followers, and the organization.

During my first year as the head of a school, initially I kept getting annoyed with the fact that necessary tasks were constantly interrupted by people and their needs. In the course of that year, as I developed in my leadership, I realized that I needed to allow time for people. At first, I thought I could simply do this by budgeting a certain amount of time for tasks and the rest of my time for people. I quickly learned that I couldn’t really budget specific time for people; rather, I needed to make people and relationships the priority. Over the next few years, my own research validated for me the important of relationship in leadership development, affirming the “value of relationship for effective leadership and its importance to leadership development . . . [and affirming] its importance for components such as building trust, communicating effectively, resolving conflict, impacting perceptions, and effecting change.” (McMaster, 2013, p. 78)

Current leadership views have also drawn the same conclusion, evident in a number of leadership theorists who have highlighted or indicated the importance of relationship as a characteristic of effective leadership. For example, Margaret Wheatley (1999) includes as one of her leadership principles the focus on building and nurturing relationships that benefit the culture. Michael Fullan (2001) includes relationships as one of the five factors that leaders must manage in order to lead through change, and specifically says, “It is time . . . to alter our perspective to pay as much attention to how we treat people – co-workers, subordinates, customers – as we now typically pay attention to structures, strategies, and statistics. . . . there is a new style of leadership in successful companies – one that focuses on people and relationships as essential to getting sustained results.” (p. 53) Kouzes’ and Posner’s The Leadership Challenge (2002) described “five practices of exemplary leadership” and their application to leading through change, including the practices of “model the way”, “enable others to act,” and “encourage the heart,” all of which are instrumental in relationship building. And the Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) theory of leadership, as explained by Graen and Uhl-Bien, “makes the leader-member relationship the pivotal concept in the leadership process.” (Northouse, 2013, p. 182)

Even beyond these few examples, as modern leadership theories and concepts have shifted in emphasis from transactional style (leadership is based on an exchange process between the leader and follower) to transformational style (leadership appeals to the moral fiber of the followers to enlist their support and involvement for their own benefit), the relationship between leaders and followers has become a focal point. I have learned this lesson clearly over the time of my leadership in the last few years, and I have now come to truly understand the importance of developing relationships with those whom I am directly leading or trying to impact. In my leadership roles, I have focused on building a culture of relationship between myself and my subordinates and superiors in order to facilitate an environment of greatest impact. Relationship has become pivotal to my practice of leadership.

People really do matter. When leaders show them that they matter, building a culture of relationship, then people will believe that they matter and the organization will benefit. It makes sense.


Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2002). The leadership challenge (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McMaster, J. S. (2013). The Influence of Christian Education on Leadership Development. The Journal of Applied Chrisitan Leadership, 7(1), 17.

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

Wheatley, M. J. (1999). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.


Be Authentic

I have worked with teenagers for years, and I believe one of their defining characteristics is a common dislike for hypocrisy. That is not to say that they don’t also demonstrate hypocrisy and wear masks themselves, but as a whole, they don’t like adults who say one thing and do another. They use the term “hypocrite” to describe this behavior, but there are other words that also apply: credible, genuine, real, or authentic. This belief or feeling, though, is not just true for teenagers; everyone dislikes hypocrisy and wants to see authenticity. This is a foundational principle that emerged in Kouzes & Posner’s leadership research, published in The Leadership Challenge, revealing that “more than anything, people want leaders who are credible. Credibility is the foundation of leadership” (p. 32). This led to their statement of “The First Law of Leadership: if you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message” (p. 33).

According to Peter Northouse, in Leadership: Theory and Practice, authentic leadership is leadership that is transparent, morally grounded, and responsive to people’s needs and values (p. 282), and is developmental (a life-long process), intrapersonal (within), and interpersonal (relationship). In other words, authenticity is all about being genuine, real, and trustworthy, both with yourself and with others, and about showing genuine care for the best interest of others. Being authentic means being genuine, consistently matching your walk with your talk, and it is absolutely critical to effective leadership.

The most important component of authenticity is honesty. It is honesty that makes someone believable and trustworthy, because it becomes the visible evidence of integrity. According to Kouzes and Posner: “Regardless of what leaders say about their own integrity, people wait to be shown; they observe the behavior. Consistency between word and deed is how people judge someone to be honest” (p. 28). You know this to be true. You can think of examples in your own experience of people who were dishonest and lacked integrity, and you know what you thought about those people and how it affected your level of trust. I don’t think anyone would question the significance of honesty. I think we also know that the “proof is in the pudding” – we decide someone’s honesty based on the actions that we see.

So then, besides the characteristic of honesty, what does authenticity look like? First, you must understand that what it does not look like is imitation. To be authentic, you must be you, not someone else, and sometimes that is much more difficult than we realize. It’s fairly easy for us to try to take on attributes and characteristics of people we look up to, and it’s also appealing to try to imitate others who we want to be like. But the truth is, “no one can be authentic by trying to imitate someone else. You can learn from others’ experiences, but there is no way you can be successful when you are trying to be like them. People trust you when you are genuine and authentic, not a replica of someone else” (George, et. al., Discovering your authentic leadership, p. 163). It’s true that there are some things that we do because we have been exposed to an influential person in our lives; for example, I can point out a number of my own behaviors that reflect my father’s influence, and I can describe important ways in which my wife has shaped who I am. However, being affected by their influence does not mean that I am being them. Rather, everything I have learned has had to be applied in a way that matches my own personality and characteristics. I still have to be me.

Second, authenticity means that people can trust you to “DWYSYWD: Do What You Say You Will Do. DWYSYWD has two essential elements: say and do. To be credible in action, leaders must be clear about their beliefs; they must know what they stand for. That’s the “say” part. Then they must put what they say into practice: they must act on their beliefs and “do” (Kouzes and Posner, p. 38). This characteristic will most clearly be revealed when the pressure is on and the challenge is great. Without question, “the values that form the basis for authentic leadership are derived from your beliefs and convictions, but you will not know what your true values are until they are tested under pressure” (George, et. al., pp. 169-170). When the heat is turned up, the fire will usually reveal your true colors, and that’s when people can see if your authenticity is real.

The conclusion, then, is that a leader must be authentic in order to be effective. People must be able to tell that you are genuine, that you are who you say you are because you do what you say you will do. Whether you realize it or not, you are being watched by your people, your family, your customers, and your community, so that they can determine if you are believable and therefore trustworthy. And if they don’t trust you, they won’t follow you. That’s why I believe that authenticity needs to be at the top of the list for every leader.

George, B., Sims, P., McLean, A. N., and Mayer, D., “Discovering Your Authentic Leadership” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (2011). Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.

Kouzes, J. M., and Posner, B. Z. (2002). The Leadership Challenge (3rd Ed.). Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.

Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and Practice (6th Ed.). Sage Publications: Los Angeles, CA.



What is the Style Approach to Leadership?

The fundamental premise behind the Style Approach to leadership is, very simply, that there are core behaviors of effective leadership that can be identified. It is true that there are good leaders and bad leaders, effective leaders and ineffective leaders. At times, that fact may well be a result of (or at least influenced by) factors related to followers and circumstances, but it is also likely a result of leader behavior. Therefore, this approach to leadership focuses on identifying leader behaviors – what leaders do and how they act.

A couple of early leadership studies, one at Ohio State University and another at the University of Michigan, first undertook the research to try to identify the core behaviors of effective leadership, and both ultimately arrived at the same results, identifying two essential behaviors (albeit, described in different ways). The Ohio State study concluded that those two behaviors were “initiating structure” (or, an organized approach and framework to managing tasks and goals), and “consideration” (or, the way that the leader considers, involves, and interacts with others). The University of Michigan study concluded that those two behaviors were “product orientation” (or, how you accomplished tasks), and “employee orientation” (or, how you relate to your employees). Do you see the similarity? Both concluded that the two behaviors centered around tasks and relationships. Style Approach says, therefore, that leadership is composed of two general behaviors: task behavior and people behavior. It also follows, then, that more effective leadership does both of those behaviors well.

The Style Approach to leadership is usually portrayed as a grid (“The Leadership Grid” or “The Managerial Grid”) with two axes – Concern for Production/Results (task) and Concern for People (relationship) – and four basic quadrants. Leadership style is a reflection of the combination of high or low task behavior and high or low relationship behavior:

  • High task, low people = Authority-Compliance style
  • Low task, high people = Country-club Management style
  • Low task, low people = Impoverished Management style
  • High task, high people = Team Management style
  • Mid-task, mid-people = Middle-of-the-Road Management style
  • And, there are also combinations of these styles


Here’s what it looks like as a grid:

The Leadership Grid


In essence, the Style Approach boils leadership practice down to two fundamental behaviors: managing tasks and managing people. It is fairly obvious that more effective leaders can manage both tasks and people well, but the most effective leaders are also able to take into account situational and follower factors and adjust their approach to best fit that environment. In other words, some situations and followers require a more authoritative approach, and some require a more supportive and encouraging approach, and a good leader knows which is best in what circumstance, but is also competent in both.



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


The Leadership Challenge, by James Kouzes and Barry Posner

The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes & Posner, coverThe Leadership Challenge is about how leaders mobilize others to want to get extraordinary things done in organizations. It’s about the practices leaders use to transform values into actions, visions into realities, obstacles into innovations, separateness into solidarity, and risks into rewards. It’s about leadership that creates the climate in which people turn challenging opportunities into remarkable success” (Kouzes & Posner, 2002, p. xvii). The preface of this book begins with this paragraph, summarizing the concept of leadership that it prescribes.

The book was originally published a little over 25 years ago, and became an influential book that was representative of Transformational Leadership. As I described in a recent post, transformational leadership can be defined as “the process whereby a person engages with others and creates a connection that raises the level of motivation and morality in both the leader and the follower” (Northouse, 2013, p. 186). Transformational leaders are people who are recognized as “change agents who are good role models, who can create and articulate a clear vision for an organization, who empower followers to meet higher standards, who act in ways that make others want to trust them, and who give meaning to organizational life” (p. 214) Kouzes and Posner, culminating in their important publication, The Leadership Challenge, researched and developed a model of leadership that represented these ideals.

Their research was conducted through countless surveys and interviews of leaders around the world over the last several decades, and resulted in establishing what they term as the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership. The effectiveness of these practices is predicated on the establishment of credibility first (no one is very willing to follow a leader that they do not trust), which was revealed when their research show that honesty and integrity were consistently the highest rated attributes that followers wanted in their leaders. With credibility established, the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership are:

  • Model the Way: be a model of the behavior you expect from others, with clear consistency between words and deeds
  • Inspire a Shared Vision: imagine the future, and then enlist people in that vision, with an understanding and consideration of their needs
  • Challenge the Process: be willing to change the status quo and adopt innovation, recognizing that experimentation, risk, and failure comes with change
  • Enable Others to Act: foster collaboration and trust, empowering and making it possible for others to do good work
  • Encourage the Heart: demonstrate genuine acts of caring to uplift people and show appreciation, drawing them forward

They finish their book by establishing the view that leadership can be learned, encouraging people to self-analyze and take the stops to develop effective (and moral) leadership skills.

The book, with the principles described by Kouzes and Posner, is an excellent resource for leaders. The ideas are practical and understandable, and correlate strongly to biblical principles (see the bonus note below). This book is a definite must for your leadership growth and development.

Bonus: A separate book, Christian Reflections on the Leadership Challenge, was published in 2006 as a faith-based companion to The Leadership Challenge. The book addresses the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership from a Christian perspective, utilizing five men and women from the world of leadership to reflect on the role of faith in leadership as it applies to the principles of Kouzes’ and Posner’s work.


Kouzes, J. M., and Posner, B. Z. (2002). The Leadership Challenge (3rd Edition). Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.

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


Take Care of People

Leadership generally involves two aspects: tasks and people. Often, it seems to be easier for us to give our attention to tasks than it does it people, and it also seems that most leadership books focus more on strategies related to tasks than to people. Maybe that’s because tasks are more definable and more easily organized and planned, while people are more unpredictable and require more emotional investment. But whatever the reason, I believe that a truly effective leader understands the value of people, and knows that people are more important than tasks. It follows then, that a good leader will take care of people.

When I first entered the world of education as a teacher, I was blessed to have both a headmaster and a principal who invested in me and cared about me. And it wasn’t just me; they cared about all of the faculty and staff. I received wonderful support, constructive criticism, and guidance that helped me to develop and flourish. Then there came a time when I experienced some particularly difficult personal circumstances, when the trials of life were overwhelming and I was struggling to manage. During this time, these two individuals – my leaders – lifted me up and walked along side me. Out of these circumstances, and from these leaders, I learned the value and importance of taking care of people.

When I eventually had the opportunity to become an administrator of a school, I carried that experience with me. It became one of my core values, as a headmaster, to take care of the people who worked with and for me. I did it because it had been done for me and had meant so much to me as a teacher, but I soon learned the value of this practice from the leader’s perspective. I learned that when I genuinely cared for and took care of the people who worked for me, the security and significance that resulted for them produced two beneficial responses: 1) they could focus their energy and effort on doing their jobs well, because they were not carrying fear or anxiety from job insecurity, and 2) because they knew I cared, and had tangible evidence to support that belief, they then cared about me and were willing to follow me with enthusiasm.

Kevin Leman and William Pentak communicated this same idea in The Way of the Shepherd, stating clearly, “You have to really care about people. You can go through all the right mechanics, but if you don’t genuinely care about the people who report to you, you’ll never be the kind of leader they’ll drop everything to follow” (2004, p. 27). The point is, people need to know that they matter, and they need to know that you care. And although leadership is about both tasks and people, the mistake that we can easily make is to let tasks and agenda prevent us from caring about people (I spoke about this in a previous post, on the importance of being relational). When we are focusing on ourselves rather than on others, it becomes too easy to think that we must know enough and do enough to lead people effectively, but in reality – as I have frequently heard stated – people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Robert Greenleaf, who first developed the modern leadership theory of servant leadership, shared that people “will freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants” (1977, p. 24). He went on to say that a servant-leader is servant first, which “manifests itself in the care taken . . . to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served” (1977, p. 27). Essentially, “servant leadership emphasizes that leaders be attentive to the concerns of their followers, empathize with them, and nurture them” (Northouse, 2013, p. 219). This is the leader who shows his people that he cares about them, and it’s a genuine care (because they can tell if it is not). And this is the type of leadership that I first experienced as a follower, and learned to appreciate so much that it became a primary characteristic of my own leadership.

So I would say to you: People matter; take care of them. When their needs are not being met, they become insecure because they are now concerned about their own needs. When they are insecure in their jobs, they won’t (and can’t) give you their best efforts, because they can’t give you all of their attention – they are now focused on protecting their own needs. When you haven’t shown them that you care about them, you prevent a mutual relationship and response of trust and support, and they are unwilling to follow you wholeheartedly. It may cost you some sacrifice to genuinely care and to take care of them, but the reward in their response will far exceed the sacrifice you make. So, take care of them. And do it because they matter.

Greenleaf, R. K. (1977). Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness (25th Anniversary Edition). Paulist Press: Mahwah, NJ.

Leman, K., and Pentak, W. (2004). The Way of the Shepherd: 7 Ancient Secrets to Managing Productive People. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI.

Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and Practice (6th Edition). Sage Publications: Los Angeles, CA.