The Inherent Synergies Between Servant Leadership and Situational Leadership®

Servant leadership is a philosophy that was developed in the early 1970s by Robert Greenleaf. A philosophy, as we know, is a filter of sorts that informs how to process events, develop perspective and make decisions. Suffice to say, when servant leadership was unveiled, it caused quite a stir.

It caused that stir because it challenged conventional thinking regarding the role of leaders. Traditionally, leaders at various levels of the organizational hierarchy were conduits of communication and accountability. They primarily functioned to ensure productivity targets were met or exceeded. Communication in those traditional structures had a tendency to flow from top to bottom and responsiveness from the bottom up.

Servant leadership fundamentally challenged that convention. Organizations as entities needed to be structured and to operate in a manner that reversed the flow of communication and responsiveness (communication up, responsiveness down).

The implications for leaders were significant. As opposed to simply communicating priorities and monitoring progress, servant leaders needed to invest in and focus upon the employees on their teams who were doing the work. What “made them tick” as human beings? What were their needs? What could the leader do to respond to those needs in a manner that prioritized the growth, development and professional maturation of each employee in the context of pursuing organizational productivity?

The Situational Leadership® Model was developed in the early 1970s by Paul Hersey. An effective model, as we also know, is a practical, repeatable, rubric of sorts that provides a road map for the user to make decisions. When the Situational Leadership® Model was unveiled, it also caused quite a stir.

It caused that stir because for the first time, practicing leaders (in all walks of life) were introduced to a framework that did two things:

  1. Integrated 50 years of conflicting academic research on leadership and human motivation.
  2. Used language that you did not need a Ph.D. to understand.

At its core, the Situational Leadership® approach is a follower-driven model. It initiates with the task that needs to be accomplished then relies on the diagnostic capability of the leader: What is the ability (task-specific knowledge, experience and skill) of the employee and what is the willingness (task-specific confidence, commitment and motivation)?

The implications for leaders (and followers) were significant. First off, we all came to grips with the fact that there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” leadership style. They can all work and they can all fail miserably. Success is a function of matching the approach (empowerment, collaboration, guidance) with the individual for the task in question. Second, people are not “able” or “unable.” It all depends upon what they are being asked to do! The same person can be at any conceivable combination of ability and willingness depending upon what they are being asked/required to accomplish.

Given those givens, it is difficult to imagine a true servant leader that was somehow not a practicing Situational Leader. Beyond that, in the history of leadership development it is difficult to imagine two more compatible contributions. When you assume the role of leader in an organization, a family or anywhere else, you will be judged (like it or not) by the achievements of those you influence and the impact you had on their progress and overall development. Philosophically, you are there to serve! Incrementally, you are there to determine and execute the approach that most effectively honors that responsibility.