Seven Key Characteristics of Situational Leaders

For over 50 years, The Center for Leadership Studies has been known as the global home of the Situational Leadership® Model. As such, we field questions like these on an ongoing basis from a variety of stakeholders:

  • Can you identify and define the characteristics of the Situational Leadership® Model?
  • What are the traits of a Situational Leader?
  • Are there distinctive qualities that describe or explain the Situational Leadership® approach?

While in no way intended to be an exhaustive or comprehensive list, here are seven key characteristics, qualities, and traits that paint an accurate picture of the Situational Leadership® framework and of the Situational Leader.


Characteristics of Adaptable Leaders

  • Is flexible depending on each situation
  • Change doesn’t cause them stress to change plans and re-evaluate

Situational Leaders recognize there is no such thing as the best style or a preferred approach. Every style works, and every style doesn’t!

For example, there is nothing inherently good or bad about Empowerment. That approach has a high probability of success with followers performing tasks for which they have a track record of proficiency. It also has a low probability of success with followers who have limited task-related experience, skill or confidence.

The same can be said for Directive or Collaborative approaches. The style of the leader must be dictated by the task that needs to be completed, in combination with the task-specific Ability and Willingness of the person responsible for performance.

What Is Adaptability In Leadership

Adaptability is the flexibility of the leader to engage with whatever leadership style approach makes the most sense given the circumstances of the situation at hand.


Characteristics of Communicative Leaders

  • Good communication skills such as the ability to listen well, respond and reach compromises
  • Can inspire people and build healthy relationships

Situational Leaders are skilled communicators. They have developed the ability to effectively deliver every leadership style in a manner that creates movement, builds relationships and inspires peak performance.

Each of us has a preferred or natural style of leadership. Some of us are instinctively:

  • Directive – We are comfortable providing others with the benefit of our experience and articulating a structured path for their performance-related growth and development
  • Collaborative– We feel at ease asking open–ended questions, effectively listening to others as they respond and facilitating performance growth and development
  • Empowering – We are comfortable allowing others to work their way through emerging challenges and find their own path of performance growth and development

Situational Leaders also have a preferred style, but they have taken the time and dedicated the necessary effort to master each approach. As a result, regardless of the circumstances, they have the ability to successfully respond.


Characteristics of Visionary Leaders

  • Thinks long-term and how new plans will impact others
  • Can communicate that vision so workers feel on a mission and inspired to continue toward goals

Situational Leaders are not only aware of the age-old adage “begin with the end in mind,” but they also live by it! Even in a turbulent world besieged by the ongoing disruption of unexpected change, Situational Leaders establish a clear vision of what good looks like before asking others to dive in and engage.

Vision has many definitions or descriptions, but it is often easiest to consider it as an imaginary destination; a place you or your team haven’t arrived at yet, but that you know exists. The Situational Leader helps their team set performance-related goals and objectives, which serve as interim mile markers on the path to the ultimate destination.

Understanding the bigger picture, or the purpose of the work being done, can help individual contributors in so many ways. If nothing else, it can lessen or alleviate lapses in commitment or motivation that usually arise due to unforeseen or emergent circumstances.


Characteristics of Empathetic Leaders

  • Can understand how others feel or, at least, consider their position
  • Open to reading emotions, can respond well in the moment and anticipate reactions
  • Is kind and considerate

Empathy is a foundational characteristic that drives a Situational Leader’s ability to establish and build both credibility and trust. Without credibility and trust, attempts to influence others will predictably fall short of the intended mark.

Have you ever tried to collaborate with someone who didn’t trust you? You want them to tell you what’s truly on their mind or offer suggestions grounded in their unique perspective, but for whatever reason, those attempts to enter into an engaging exchange are met by one-word answers in combination with painful silence.

A leader cannot mandate or force engagement and participation. They can, however, create a safe environment where engagement and participation can flow. Empathy is the key! When followers know the leader has also experienced job-related insecurity or fluctuating motivation or felt like they were “in over their head,” it can make a world of difference in tackling the problems or opportunities at hand.


Characteristics of Leaders Who Give Feedback

  • Can communicate and reorient team members without making them feel judged or frustrated
  • Knows feedback leads to growth and healthy outcomes

The Situational Leadership® Model is a language of Performance Management. And most importantly the Situational Leadership® framework helps managers align with their team on Performance Objectives and, from that point forward, on providing Performance Feedback.

As it applies to establishing Performance Objectives, Situational Leaders:

  • Play a Directive role with followers who are “novices” for the task at hand (i.e., limited task-related skill and lacking confidence as a result)
  • Play an Empowering role with followers who are “experts” (i.e., have successfully performed the task many times and enjoy doing so)
  • Play a Participative role with followers who are somewhere in between “novice” and “expert” for the task under consideration

When objectives are clear, Feedback becomes the engine that drives performance. Situational Leaders actively engage in both planned and unplanned feedback intended to accelerate progress and reverse performance slippage.


Characteristics of Organized Leaders

  • Able to put together a master plan and delegate each part so the plan succeeds
  • Can stay on track with deadlines, holding people responsible and supporting each team member well

Situational Leaders take their leadership role seriously, and that initiates with personalized planning and organization. For example:

  • Time Management – Situational Leaders intentionally budget time to assess (and reassess) reality. They are in command of performance-related facts and data and understand the value of critically considering “next steps” with those they lead as opposed to reacting impulsively
  • Recognition – Situational Leaders understand that the impact of “recognition” depends greatly upon the person receiving it. What appeals to some simply does not appeal to others. Therefore, Situational Leaders pay attention to what people value and develop a plan to maximize the impact of recognition when it is merited
  • Work-Life Balance – To the best of their ability, Situational Leaders are out in front of work-life balance issues. They understand the nuances of capacity and proactively discuss those limitations with the people they lead.

Effective leadership, as much as anything else, is a function of organization and planning.


Characteristics of Imaginative Leaders

  • Is creative and willing to try new ideas, takes feedback from colleagues
  • Doesn’t limit self out of fear, is courageous yet realistic with planning

If you adhere to the notion that management is what you do when you know “what good looks like,” and leadership is what you do when you “have no idea,” then you would probably agree there is ever-increasing evidence of leadership all around us!

Change is both pervasive and disruptive. And the more change there is, the fewer blueprints managers have to follow. This translates to managers progressively huddling up with their teams to align on a path forward fueled by imagination, creativity and innovation.

For this process to be effective, it is crucial that everyone involved perceive themselves as leaders! Their role is not to wait until decisions are made and then implement them. Their role is to actively contribute to the decisions being made, then leverage the alignment they have with those decisions to implementation.

Develop Your Team With The Center For Leadership Studies

At The Center for Leadership Studies, we have been at the forefront of leadership development for over 50 years. We truly believe, on the basis of our current reality, that the Situational Leadership® Model is more relevant today than it ever has been for leaders across industries and in every walk of life.

We also believe the characteristics of Situational Leaders identified above serve as a barometer of sorts for you to gauge the leadership strengths, and potential areas of development, for leaders at all levels in your organization.

Contact us today to learn more!