Tag Archive for Relational

What is Situational Leadership?

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 quite 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, the modification of leadership stye to match the circumstances, 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:

1)    Directing (S1) = high level of “directive,” low level of “supportive”

2)    Coaching (S2) = high level of “directive,” high level of “supportive”

3)    Supporting (S3) = low level of “directive,” high level of “supportive”

4)    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:

1)    D1 = low level of competence, high level of commitment

2)    D2 = medium level of competence, low level of commitment

3)    D3 = medium/high level of competence, medium level of commitment

4)    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.

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.  A uniform, “one size fits all” approach doesn’t work in every situation, therefore effective leadership will analyze the culture, 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.


The Way of the Shepherd, by Kevin Leman and William Pentak

The Way of the Shepherd coverI learned early on in my leadership development, by both example and experience, that it is important to take care of people.  Eventually, this became one the core attributes of my leadership philosophy and practice.  However, I experienced a time at one organization when it seemed like, by being very intentional about taking care of my specific employee group, I was fighting an uphill battle of resistance among much of my surrounding leadership team.  It felt like whenever I tried to identify and implement something that would allow my employees to feel taken care of, my peers within leadership tried to derail rather than support me.

It was during that time that I came across the book, The Way of the Shepherd, by Kevin Leman and William Pentak.  This particular book was a wonderful encouragement to me in reinforcing my belief in the importance of taking care of people (especially when my encouragement at that time was not coming from the people around me).  I resonated with the principles and ideas within, so much so that I have since used the book again in other places as a leadership study.

The book draws lessons on leadership from an illustration of a modern shepherd and his sheep.  In the process, management principles are presented that focus on character, priorities, and caring, aimed at engaging your employees and developing yourself.  Using the shepherd/sheep analogy, Leman and Pentak expound on these 7 principles:

  • Know the condition of your flock – know your people, engage your people, and care about your people
  • Discover the shape of your sheep – choose and use people that fit, according to their strengths
  • Help your sheep identify with you – communicate authenticity and a shared vision
  • Make your pasture a safe place – build security and significance, and address issues
  • Use the staff of direction – provide direction, empower people, and help them grow
  • Use the rod of correction – protect, correct, and inspect
  • Develop the heart of a shepherd – live a genuine example of caring leadership

It’s a fairly short book, easy to read, but I found it to be a great resource and encouragement in my leadership.  The principles make sense and are very applicable for effective leadership.  This is definitely a book for your shelf if you are trying to make a difference in your people.


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

What is Servant Leadership?

Robert Greenleaf, who also founded the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, first detailed the modern concept of Servant Leadership.  The primary and foundational principle of the concept is, very simply, putting others first.  In his research, Greenleaf determined that people “will freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proved and trusted as servants” (2002, p. 24).  He went on to describe a servant-leader as someone who is a servant first, who intentionally works to “make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served” (2002, p. 27).

Servant leadership is defined as a leadership approach in which leaders “place the good of followers over their own self-interests and emphasize follower development” (Northouse, 2012, p. 220).  Further research by others has identified ten characteristics that generally typify a servant-leader:  listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community (Spears, 2002).  In essence, the servant-leader “puts followers first, empowers them, and helps them develop their full personal capacities” (Northouse, 2012, p. 219).

The Servant Leadership model has three components:

  1. Antecedent conditions – these are the existing conditions that affect or influence the process of leadership and its effectiveness, and include context and culture, existing leader attributes and disposition, and follower receptivity to a servant-leader style.
  2. Servant leader behaviors – these are the core behaviors of the servant-leader in the leadership process, and include conceptualizing, emotional healing, putting others first, helping followers to grow and succeed, behaving ethically, empowering, and creating value for the community.  Of these, “putting others first” is the defining characteristic.
  3. Outcomes – these are the potential outcomes or results of effective servant leadership, and include enhanced follower performance, development, and growth, enhanced organizational performance, growth, and citizenship, and positive societal impact.

(Northouse, 2012, pp. 225-232)

Servant Leadership is really all about care for others and taking care of people.  It is people-focused, unselfish, and invests in the lives of others.  Like Authentic Leadership, this is the kind of leadership that builds trust and loyalty, while helping others to maximize their own personal growth and development.  It reinforces the idea of the importance of relationship and care.  As a follower of Jesus, I believe it reflects a biblical model of loving your neighbor as yourself, so it makes sense that I believe an effective leader should be a servant leader.


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

Greenleaf, R. K. (Larry C. Spears, Ed.)(2002). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness (25th Anniversary Edition). Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Spears, L. C. (2002). Focus on leadership: Servant-leadership for the 21st century. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.


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 agendas 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.

Build Connection

In a recent post, I talked about the importance of relationship and stated, “I believe that effective leadership, leadership that results in personal and organizational change, happens best within the context of relationship.” (April, 2014)  I don’t think I can emphasize enough the role that relationship plays in effective leadership, but that then naturally leads to the question of how relational connections can be established and maintained.  Leadership research has indicated that this ability is important to leadership, and the good news is that there is a simple and basic practice that can be learned and implemented that will help you develop this ability, and it is this:  build connection by finding common ground.

I have often found myself doing this unconsciously when I meet people.  I will ask questions about who they are, their experiences, and their background, and will identify something that we have in common and engage in conversation around that topic.  We may find a similar personal experience, a place that we have both seen or know, comparable work experiences, shared tastes in food, or any number of other things, but any of those topics becomes a connection through which we can begin to relax and build relationship.  As I have thought about my tendency to do this, I have realized that I was influenced to exhibit this behavior by reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) many years ago.  Specifically, I remember simple principles that included:  smile; become genuinely interested in others; encourage others to talk about themselves; and, talk in terms in terms of the other person’s interests.  Because I genuinely care about people, these are principles that I have incorporated into practice long enough that they have become natural for me.  (Please remember, these must be genuine – not artificial – behaviors!)

Daniel Goleman (he of the “Emotional Intelligence” fame) spoke about this when he originally described the characteristics of emotional intelligence in connection with leadership.  In explaining the attribute of empathy, he said that “socially skilled people tend to have . . . a knack for finding common ground with people of all kinds – a knack for building rapport.  That doesn’t mean they socialize continually; it means they work according to the assumption that nothing important gets done alone.”  (“What Makes a Leader?,” in HBR’s Ten Must Reads on Leadership, 2011)  Additionally, the theory of Authentic Leadership espouses the value of this practice, affirming the idea that “authentic leaders have the capacity to open themselves up and establish a connection with others. They are willing to share their own story with others and listen to others’ stories.” (Northouse, 2013, p. 260)  The basic concept is that leadership is more effective when you can listen to others, learn something about them, find common ground, and thereby establish a connection.

So when I say that it is important for a leader to “build connection,” understand that I am not talking about “networking.”  Rather, I am valuing the importance of finding common ground with everyone you meet, a connection that enables you to establish a positive relationship.  Relational skills are essential to leadership, and learning to build connection is a simple practice which develops that skill and facilitates a relational environment.  Be sure that it is genuine, out of a care for people (people can tell fairly quickly if it’s not), and you will find yourself becoming a more effective leader.

Carnegie, D. (1936). How to Win Friends and Influence People. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. (2011). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

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


The Importance of Story

“Life, you’ll notice, is a story ” (Eldredge, 2004, p. 2).  This brief statement by John Eldredge, in the short book Epic, seems to have captured in six words the realization for me that my life is a story.  This was not always my perspective or viewpoint.  In fact, when I entered my journey in my doctoral leadership program, I believe I was quite strongly a “concrete sequential” thinker with a quantitative view of data and life.  Somewhere along the way, a series of circumstances, events, and reflective moments drew me to connect with the concept of “story,” and led me to much more of a qualitative understanding of life.  My personal growth had changed me to the point that I would now describe my perspective much like Eldredge did when he followed that six-word statement by saying, “Life doesn’t come to us like a math problem.  It comes to us the way that a story does, scene by scene.  You wake up.  What will happen next?  You don’t get to know – you have to enter in, take the journey as it comes.  The sun might be shining. There might be a tornado outside.  Your friends might call and invite you to go sailing.  You might lose your job.  Life unfolds like a drama.  Doesn’t it?  Each day has a beginning and an end.  There are all sorts of characters, all sorts of settings.  A year goes by like a chapter from a novel.  Sometimes it seems like a tragedy.  Sometimes like a comedy.  Most of it feels like a soap opera.  Whatever happens, it’s a story through and through.”  (pp. 2-3)

A natural outgrowth of recognizing the emergence of my own personal story was the understanding that “everyone has a story,” and so I transitioned from a recognizing the importance of my story to a recognizing the importance of story in others, and in leadership in general.  I see this now in the simple way that I will often ask questions of people I meet to draw out their stories, and look for connections between their stories and mine in order to build relationship in a way that will benefit and enhance the effectiveness of my leadership. This importance of understanding each person’s story is, for me, reflected in the research methodology of narrative inquiry.   I have learned from Clandinin and Connelly, in the book Narrative Inquiry (2000), that story, or narrative inquiry, is a very important component of research because it provides the context and history of a circumstance and an environment, which provides meaning to them.  Merriam (1998) describes it as “the meaning people have constructed, that is, how they make sense of their world and the experiences they have in the world” (p. 6).

Over time, I have come to see leadership as a process that occurs within a context.  It seems that many approaches to leadership focus on the attributes of the leader or the relationship between the leader and the followers, but I believe that it is also very necessary to take into account the context of that process.  This includes knowledge of the context/environment in which the leader and followers currently exist (present); knowledge of the organizational history (past); and organizational vision (future).  With this knowledge, the leader engages in the process that is a continuing cycle of analyzing past, present, and future in order to move people and organizations toward a desired growth, change, or direction.  In other words, the leader understands that the story of the organization and the stories of its people are necessary to understanding how to shape the organization, which means that story is critical for a leader to be effective as a change agent.  Therefore, in order for me to effectively make change within an organization, I must first understand its history, and to understand its history, I must hear stories.  I need to ask questions about the way things are done and why they are done in that way, build relationships with those around me, allowing me to best empower and encourage them.  I need to share the example of my own story, and listen to their stories.

So then the “plot” of my story, so to speak, is that I have learned the importance of story for leadership.  I have learned that knowing my own story is vital to understanding how I lead and why I lead the way I do.  I have learned the importance of knowing the story of the organization which I lead, which leads me to ask questions and listen before acting, in order to better understand and manage that organization.  I have learned the value of using story as a tool to effectively teach, mentor, motivate, and bring about change.  I have learned that everyone has a story, and each person’s story in turn impacts how that person constructs meaning from life, and therefore – in order for me to influence and develop my followers – I need to understand each person’s story.  As a leader, a teacher/mentor, and a change agent: story matters!


Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Eldredge, J. (2004). Epic:  The Story God is Telling. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Merriam, S. B. (1998). Qualitative research and case study applications in education (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.