Rethinking Situational Leadership®

When you actively consider the people that have made contributions of significance to the field of global leadership development over the years, you don’t get too far down that list before Marshall Goldsmith’s name appears. On a personal level (and in complete and total transparency), I don’t know exactly what to say about Marshall, so I will just go with this:

He has meant more to my personal development than anyone in my 40-year career and has also meant more to The Center for Leadership Studies and Situational Leadership® than anyone not named Paul Hersey.

The connection between those two giants is well documented. Dr. Hersey gave Marshall his first professional opportunity in the early 1970s. Ponder, just for a moment, how different leadership was back then—in so very many ways.

One sort of all-encompassing distinction was the pace of change and the decision-making that went with it. By contemporary standards, both are unrecognizable. In days long since passed, leaders had access to information that followers did not. That access not only legitimized their perspective, but it also accentuated their authority. In so doing, it overwhelmingly confined followers to the realm of execution. That separation fueled a routine where leaders almost unilaterally drove the process and dictated the pace of follower skill development.

It was almost as if those leaders would periodically come down the mountain with the tablets, establish priorities and direct activity. They determined what needed to be done and how it needed to be accomplished. In Situational Leadership® terms, that translated to formal leaders identifying the tasks that needed to be completed, assessing the Performance Readiness® of the people that would be completing them and depending upon that diagnosis:

  1. Telling followers what to do and how to do it, or …
  2. Collaborating with those who had exhibited comfort with the established routine, or …
  3. Empowering those who had earned comparative autonomy.

So, what seems so different about leadership in the “here and now?” In a nutshell, so very much! Ongoing, never-ending, disruptive change! Daunting tasks! Exponentially increasing complexity! Rampant uncertainty! Because we have been so conditioned for so long to look up the mountain when we hit a stumbling block, by force of habit, we continue to do so.

Good news! When change hits, we can still see leaders heading down the mountain with an escalating sense of urgency! Troubling news—they have no tablets! What they arrive with instead are shared challenges. Challenges so complex they are forcing us to fundamentally rethink what leadership is, where it comes from and how it works.

Consider the well-documented, real-world exploits of a forward-thinking leadership giant who has demonstrated what rethinking leadership looks like in the face of paralyzing disruption.

Alan Mulally: It is a wonderful, reassuring sort of thing when your heroes turn out to be better in real life than they were in the stories you read about them (which made them your heroes in the first place!). Alan Mulally fits that description to a tee!

Google anything that has ever been written about Alan’s exploits as a leader, especially during his tenure at Ford. What did he figure out a way to do during historically disruptive change? (Way too much to cover here in any semblance of detail of course!) But, through the lens of Situational Leadership®, he turned the model upside down!

Let’s start with this: When change hits, Performance Readiness® shifts. If that change is disruptive enough, it can render the experience base and skill sets of the highest performing superstars on your team obsolete (or, at a minimum, diminished). When/if that happens, it stands to reason that the confidence people have to deliver results will be adversely impacted as well. If you consider Mulally’s experience at Ford, the leader needs to:

  1. Facilitate Objective Analysis: One of the most difficult things you can ask anyone to do is to be objective about themselves (or the people they work closest with) in the middle of disruption. Typically, disruptive change generates fear. The more pronounced the change, the higher the probability that fear will be manifested through subjectivity (“We’re going to be fine if we just keep doing what we have proven we know how to do!”). As a leader, you need command of relevant facts and data to help others accurately assess the gap between their ability to effectively respond to the circumstances produced by the change compared to their ability/skill set prior to the disruption. Assisting the members of your team to accept the current reality and objectively own their readiness to respond is a crucial first step.
  2. Applaud When You Get It: Mulally literally stopped meetings and applauded those who demonstrated the bravery necessary to admit low Performance Readiness®. In the spirit of Brené Brown, he would routinely stand, smile and recognize this display of breakthrough courage! It is difficult (massive understatement) to admit you lack the experience, skill or confidence to perform or respond. But, when people feel comfortable enough to do so, at a minimum, you know where your attention needs to be focused. As a leader, go out of your way every chance you get to celebrate the bravery of those that put their personal egos to the side, draw a line in the sand and articulate “problems” in service of the path forward.
  3. Empower the “What”: Probably the most unique aspect of Alan’s “trip down the mountain at Ford” was removing himself from the content of operational decisions. In his own words, he was “an airplane guy, not a car guy.” What this served to do in the eye of Ford’s storm was to place ownership for recovery directly on the shoulders of the people that would be the primary stewards of its iterative implementation. The incremental outcomes associated with that journey would be routinely publicized (companywide), discussed (companywide) and calibrated against facts and data (companywide). Since they were truly in unique circumstances, with no blueprint or set of directions to follow, accountability for decisions resided with the collective, as opposed to the few.
  4. Direct the “How”: Above all else, Alan Mulally was a catalyst for positive culture. He vigorously employed a system he had developed throughout his career called: “Working Together”: Principles, Practices, and Management System. If you Google it, you will find 11 bullets that read like a script summary for an episode of Ted Lasso, or a documentary on the lifetime contributions of Fred Rogers:
    • People first
    • Love them up
    • Everyone is included
    • Respect, listen, help and appreciate each other
    • Have fun—enjoy the journey and each other
    • Etc.

The thing that distinguishes Mulally’s principles and practices was his relentless attention to the way those values were manifested day in and day out. Companywide. Starting (and ending) with him. Consider this for a moment: During his time at Ford, he instituted a zero tolerance for bad behavior policy. Regardless of what was going on in the world that surrounded the people of Ford, they were going to treat each other in a manner that enhanced human dignity. Every day. Every meeting. Every interaction.

So, what to make of all this in the context of becoming a Situational Leader? I believe it is this: Regardless of the circumstances that surround your attempts to influence others (e.g., more “traditional” or in response to paralyzing disruption), wrap your leadership style in Alan’s “Working Together”: Principles, Practices, and Management System. It will greatly enhance your probability of success and effectiveness!