Four Examples of Situational Leadership®

Perhaps you are familiar with the Situational Leadership® Model but could use a quick refresher to refine your understanding. Or perhaps you have never heard of the Situational Leadership® Model but are interested in learning whatever you can about viable methodologies with proven track records for developing leaders. Either way, this article is for you!

As the title suggests, we will describe and explain the four leadership styles that constitute the Situational Leadership® Model. But beyond that (and much more importantly), we will provide examples of each style in action and, also, chronicle the impact of two very well-known Situational Leaders (Alan Mulally and Frances Hesselbein).

Understanding The Basics of the Situational Leadership® Model

What Is A Theory vs A Model?

Dr. Paul Hersey, the developer of the Situational Leadership® Model, went out of his way to distinguish the differences between a theory and a model:

“A theory gives you something interesting to think about. A model gives you something to do!”

Task vs Relationship Behavior

Reviewing examples of each leadership style speaks to the real-world utility of the Situational Leadership® framework. Each approach represents a combination of Task and/or Relationship Behavior.

  • Task (Directive) Behavior – The extent to which the leader makes decisions; closely supervises execution; and defines the what, where, how, when and who associated with the task
  • Relationship (Supportive) Behavior – The extent to which the leader engages in two-way communication, active listening and recognition for progress made with the task

The Four Styles of the Situational Leadership® Model

The four styles that emerge from those two parameters are:

  • Style 1 – High Task and Low Relationship Behavior (“Telling”)
  • Style 2 – High Task and High Relationship Behavior (“Selling”)
  • Style 3 – High Relationship and Low Task Behavior (“Participating”)
  • Style 4 – Low Relationship and Low Task Behavior (“Delegating”)

It is important to keep in mind that no style is better or worse than any other. All four work, and all four don’t! The relative success of any approach is a function of the situation.

Examples of the Situational Leadership® Styles

Example of “Telling” Situational Leadership®

The Situation: A recently hired employee, who has yet to demonstrate proficiency with a key task for their role, is struggling to figure out “where to start and what to do” and is noticeably apprehensive.

The Response: The leader would initiate by providing structured expectations about how the work should proceed:

  • “I want to make sure you start moving in the right direction and understand our processes, procedures and expectations for performance. I will be close by when it comes time for you to execute, but I also want to make sure you know where to go and who to ask if you run into an unforeseen problem when I am not.”

As the communication continued, the leader would do approximately 80 percent of the talking and provide details and sequencing on the steps the follower would need to take. By providing specific directions, and closely supervising that performance, the leader can remove or mitigate any fear the follower may be feeling because they do not want to make a mistake.

It is important, in that regard, to recognize that Style 1 is a short-term approach that is intended to “Create Movement.” Liken it to a teacher, on the first day of class, ensuring new students understand what they need to do to be successful during the grading period. As such, most of the questions a leader would use with a Telling Style intentionally provide focus on the task:

  • “Do you have any questions on the instructions I have just reviewed?”

Example of “Selling” Situational Leadership®

The Situation: An employee has recently been given responsibility for a high-visibility task. The employee in question could best be described as “enthusiastic and ready to learn” but currently does not possess the necessary experience or skill to effectively execute autonomously.

The Response: Similar to S1, the leader would start out by taking a structured approach that emphasizes the guidance necessary for the follower to succeed, but combine that direction with high amounts of two-way communication, recognition and support:

  • “Before I say anything else, I want you to know how excited I am that you will be the person responsible for performing this task! There is no doubt you are ready to take this on! And I view my role in the short term is to ensure you start out (and stay) on the right track through the inevitable learning curve that goes along with taking on new things.”

As discussion continued, the leader would continue to make development-related decisions on the pace and sequencing of steps to be taken, but ensure the follower knew why those decisions were being made and how performance on this task fit into the bigger picture of overall goal achievement.

Many followers begin development with high confidence and motivation, even though they lack task-related experience or skill. The objective of S2 is to “Leverage the Enthusiasm” and accelerate progress. Questions with a selling style encourage both increased involvement and learning:

  • “What’s the most important thing you have learned so far, and why?”

Example of “Participating” Situational Leadership®

The Response: There is a significant shift in the role of the leader when moving from S2 to S3.  With S1 and S2, the leader is making task-related decisions and providing feedback to the follower on their progress. With S3, the decision rights on the task shift to the follower based on the skill they have exhibited to deliver desired results:

  • “It strikes me that very few people know more about the nuances associated with this task than you do, so, let’s talk about what you think might go wrong if I wasn’t around and what you think I could do that you couldn’t.”

The objective of S3 is to “Explore Alternatives.” If the follower is experiencing apprehension, insecurity or fluctuating motivation, it needs to be both discussed and resolved. Beyond that, the follower needs to own the decision and recognize the importance of stepping up and realizing their potential. They have demonstrated they have the skill, so the discussion needs to zero in on “the will.” Questions with a Participating style leave “the ball in the follower’s court”:

  • “What do you think we should do?”
  • “If you were the manager here, how would you respond to that question?”
  • “Of the alternatives discussed, which path makes the most sense?”

Example of “Delegating” Situational Leadership®

The Situation: An employee has forgotten more than most people will ever know about the performance of a key task. They have truly developed a level of mastery that is both noteworthy and distinct.

The Response: Empowering people that know what to do, and enjoy doing it, is the highest form of recognition there is. The “teacher” that supplied direction and support, and made decisions on task completion when employing S1 and S2, becomes “the student” during exchanges when using S4:

  • “I’m wondering if you have any words of wisdom for me regarding this key task. Have you learned anything recently that might help make me a better coach with some of the employees we have recently hired?”

The objective of S4 is to “Enable Mastery.” This translates to taking managerial ego out of the equation and providing increasing decision rights to the employee that demonstrates the ability to perform a task at a sustained and acceptable level. The effective use of S4 is also the key to continuous improvement and task-related creativity. Questions that align with a Delegating approach have significant “degrees of freedom” and encourage tenured and dedicated employees to take their performance to the next level:

  • “What could we be doing differently around here to improve productivity?”
  • “What changes would you suggest to our existing protocol?”
  • “If you were in my shoes, what would be worrying you most, and why?”

Famous Situational Leaders

While there are many distinguished leaders in the public and private sectors around the world who attribute at least a portion of their success to the Situational Leadership® framework, Alan Mulally and Frances Hesselbein are two that stand out.

Alan Mulally

Alan Mulally is an aeronautical engineer who became the CEO of the Boeing Company before becoming the CEO of the Ford Motor Company and orchestrated one of the most prolific turnarounds in corporate history.

In a key moment during his early tenure at Ford, he asked 16 direct reports to use a “Red-Yellow-Green” diagnostic to accurately assess the situation Ford was facing. He then facilitated a process where every employee at Ford was kept up to speed on the progress being made against the plan that was put in place.

From “the bottom up,” Ford employees aligned on their situations and employed all 4 leadership styles as situations transitioned from “Red” to “Yellow” to “Green.”

Frances Hesselbein

Frances Hesselbein was the former Girl Scouts of the USA CEO, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient with 22 honorary degrees, the Editor of the Leader-to-Leader Journal, and the Chairman of the Hesselbein Forum at the University of Pittsburgh.

Among many other things, Frances was famous for reminding us all that leadership is a matter of “how to be” as opposed to “what to do.”

In that regard, she invested time as a leader ensuring those she influenced had a clear and accurate picture of where they were, relative to where they aspired to be. When that alignment was achieved, the leadership approach that had the highest probability for their success came into clear focus as well.

Improve Your Teams With Learning Solutions From 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 four styles of Situational Leadership® identified above can help leaders at all levels in an organization identify the approaches to influencing others that come naturally, as well as those that may need focused practice to improve.

Contact us today to learn more.