The Pros & Cons of Situational Leadership®

Business people discussing over windmill models while sitting at desk in office

What Is Situational Leadership®?

Situational Leadership® is a model that over 15 million managers have experienced in formal training around the globe. It is a practical model grounded in pioneering research and foundational principles of influence. It has also become an essential tool for leaders at all levels of an organization to leverage as they manage performance in an ever-changing world.

The essence of the Situational Leadership® Model is that there is no “best” leadership style. They all work, and they all don’t. It depends upon the circumstances in which those styles are employed. Therefore, Situational Leaders adjust and modify their approach after thoughtful consideration of the task that needs to be completed, in combination with the task-specific ability and willingness of the follower(s) to complete it.

Why Is Situational Leadership® Important?

So, why is the Situational Leadership® framework important?

In a word, “difference”:

  • Employees are different: By design, people from widely diverse backgrounds are hired by organizations to achieve meaningful outcomes. Each comes with unique strengths, distinct areas of self-development and varying needs
  • Teams are different: Every time an employee joins, or leaves, a team, the dynamic of that team changes
  • Tasks are different: Deadlines can be “manageable” or “impossible.” Visibility, criticality and impact can vary

This article provides further understanding of the Situational Leadership® approach along with the pros and cons associated with its adoption.

Benefits of Situational Leadership®

Conforms to Address Every Situation

Consider for a moment the intimidating sea of variables that impact the effectiveness of a leader.

  • The Situation: The most important components of the situation are the task to be accomplished, the timeframe of that performance, and the criticality of the outcome
  • The Followers: Do they know what they are doing? Have they successfully performed the task previously? Do they have confidence in their ability to do it again?
  • The Boss:  How do they believe the leader should proceed? Are they available for counsel/advice?
  • The Leader’s Peers: How would the leader’s peers respond to the set of circumstances presented?
  • Company Performance: The performance of the company can impact a leader’s approach and eventual effectiveness. Is the company ahead of, or behind, the plan?
  • Company Culture: Are some leadership styles more acceptable and common than others? Probably!

If we were to draft all this out as an equation, it might look something like this:

  • Le = f(S); (F); (B); (A); (P); (C) …

(Leader effectiveness is a function of the situation; follower; boss; associates; company performance; company culture; etc.)

The Situational Leadership® framework helps leaders focus by drawing their attention to the most important variables (the situation and the follower). If the follower decides not to follow, all the other variables are rendered obsolete! This is why Situational Leaders have a plan for every situation they encounter.

Creates a Strong Team

Strong teams have remarkable similarities:

  • Purpose: The membership of the team is independently aware of (and aligned with) the reason the team exists. They understand the imagery of the vision connected to that purpose, along with the value of turning that vision into reality
  • Roles: The membership of the team independently understands their responsibility to contribute. They are also well aware of the consequences associated with falling short of those expectations and failing to communicate those circumstances to others as soon as humanly possible
  • Goals: On an interim basis (i.e., daily or weekly), each member of the team knows what they need to do and how they need to do it. These goals are measured and communicated across the team in an effort to accelerate progress and get out in front of potential problems

Situational Leaders work through team purpose, roles and goals to help determine the incremental contributions members of the team should be prioritizing and executing. The task that a Situational Leader uses as the first step in that process can be thought of as the “lowest common denominator” of a performance goal. From that point of initiation, the Situational Leader aligns with each team member, on each task, regarding the level of guidance and support that is needed for goal achievement.

The less experience and confidence a member of the team has to fulfill their role in that task, the more the leader provides the benefits associated with their own experience. The more experience and confidence the team member has, the less the leader’s experience is needed.

Carries Business Goals Forward

In sports, a team can be playing poorly against an evenly matched opponent and still find themselves winning. Conversely, there are times when a team can be playing almost flawlessly and somehow find themselves behind. Neither outcome is an accurate reflection of the input being provided in the moment, but it does raise an interesting question:

  • Which team would you rather bet on over the long term?

Unless you are engaged in online betting, most would say a much safer team to align with would be the one that consistently and effectively executes proven fundamentals over time.

Much the same when evaluating an organization.

Environmental factors can produce a positive or a negative snapshot of organizational performance in the moment. But over the long haul, the organization that has the best leadership wins. This has been the stated investment philosophy of Warren Buffet since the 1980s. The balance sheet provides useful and necessary information. But the tenure, base of relevant experience, and ongoing strategy to develop future leaders, are key to long-term success.

So, what do you teach those leaders? Above all else, adaptability! The world is dynamic. It changes when it feels like it! Leaders who can recognize those changes, and effectively adapt to them, win!

Challenges of Situational Leadership®

Marshall Goldsmith began his historic career at The Center for Leadership Studies. He was hired in the late 1970s by Dr. Hersey and has gone on to become known worldwide for his pioneering work with Executive Coaching (Stakeholder-Centered Coaching).

When asked about the Situational Leadership® Model, Marshall is famous for delivering a prophetic, two-tiered response:

  • “The Situational Leadership® Model is best described as ‘organized common sense’; unfortunately common sense is by no means common practice.”

The first part of this comment at least partially explains why 15 million managers around the world have participated in Situational Leadership® training. It is practical, it makes sense, and it’s easy to understand!

The second part explains why there are far fewer practicing Situational Leaders than there are people who have successfully completed Situational Leadership® training. People are challenging! Behavior change is difficult! “Knowledge of” is by no means the same thing as “skill with”.

Here are the recurring challenges we hear voiced for the task of translating an understanding of the Situational Leadership® approach into the behavior of a Situational Leader.

Difficult to Master

It boggles the mind that leadership is periodically referred to as a “soft skill.” On the basis of our experience, nothing could be farther from reality. Leadership is a “hard skill.”

The most difficult thing about becoming an effective Situational Leader on a consistent basis is learning how to become increasingly cue-sensitive to the parameters that will ultimately determine success.  Once again, the steps of the Situational Leadership® Model are easy to understand but far more challenging to master:

  1. Identify the task: How far do you need to go to break down a role into its major subsets of responsibility and then into tasks or activities? How does organizational change impact this step? Do you do this for every person and every task? Doesn’t that become a major time-management challenge?
  2. Assess Performance Readiness: How do you identify (and then account for) unconscious bias as you determine the ability and willingness of an individual to perform a particular task? Can you ever really become “objective”?
  3. Communicate: If you are naturally participative as a leader, how long does it take for you to become comfortable with a directive or an empowering approach?
  4. Advance: If things are truly either “getting better or getting worse,” then is it true your job as a Situational Leader will never really be done?

These questions provide challenges for “those who understand” to transition into “those who can demonstrate that understanding” and effectively influence.

Depends on the Team

The Situational Leadership® Model is not some sort of magic formula leaders can universally employ to turn things around or consistently exceed expectations. In large part, much like any other leadership tool or methodology, there are circumstances where it can be implemented by skilled practitioners and still not deliver desired outcomes. For example, the Situational Leadership® framework is not a cure for:

  • A Toxic Team: There are times when the makeup of the team itself is an insurmountable obstacle to performance success. Egos are usually “center stage” when this is the case. Unfortunately, in cases like this, the team needs to take care of the toxicity before it can effectively focus on the tasks at hand
  • Insufficient Capability: Ability to perform is the product of growth, development and the reliable delivery of targeted results. All that initiates with the potential or the capability to perform. If a follower doesn’t possess the capability to grow and develop into the role, a Situational Leader will not magically be able to help them achieve mastery
  • A Lack of Desire: On the flip side of insufficient capability, there can also be insufficient drive or desire on the part of the follower to achieve task or role mastery. The motivation to be a consistent and high performer has been proven to be intrinsic. No matter how much a Situational Leader may “want it for others,” ultimately those others have to “want it for themselves”!

Dismantle Sense of Stability

Most human beings seek a state of stability. We like to not only know what is going on around us but also have some input over it. In that regard, some can view the notion of flexibility as working at cross purpose with effective leadership. That argument typically sounds something like this:

  • “Regardless of what it winds up being, the most important thing you can do as a leader is to be consistent. The more people can depend on what you are going to do, the more they can learn to appreciate it and respond accordingly.”

While certain aspects of that philosophical position have merit, it can also be used out of context and presented as a convincing drawback to resist becoming more adaptable and more skilled as a leader.

No one would argue that leaders need to build their reputation and foundation for influence on trust and ever-expanding expertise. Leaders should consistently build those bases of power with each and every interaction they have. However, the most inconsistent thing a leader can possibly do is to treat everyone the same. The readiness of any follower to perform is task-dependent. Change the task and, in all likelihood, you adjust the readiness. Leaders that consistently approach every opportunity to lead the same way institutionalize discord. Even still, this can be a difficult barrier for new leaders to overcome.

Develop Your Skills 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 there are formidable challenges associated with turning one’s understanding of the Situational Leadership® approach into the disciplined actions of a true Situational Leader. However, and with bias duly noted, the benefits of becoming a Situational Leader are worth every bit of effort it takes to work through the challenges!

Contact us to help develop your team today.