Leadership is complex, dynamic and often controversial, both in theory and in practice. (Given the constantly shifting and mysterious nature of human emotions and relationships, is it any wonder?) The Situational Leadership theory, developed by Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey in the mid-’70s, is one of many mental models that can help us get our heads around the concept of varying our styles of leadership. It is based on the simple notion that different situations call for different styles of leadership; there is no single best style for all situations. Before explaining the model, here are the underlying assumptions:
• People (or teams) can vary in their readiness to take on a task, job or responsibility and this is based on two sets of factors: their ability (i.e., skills, knowledge) and their willingness (motivation, confidence, commitment) with respect to that specific task.
• Ability and willingness can be developed.
• A goal of leadership is to develop a team’s ability and willingness so it can take on more and more responsibility for its work (i.e., delegation). It is about developing high performance teams.
• Leadership is best when it adapts to meet the changing needs of the developing team through, in this case, 4 distinct styles.
• The leader meets the team’s lack of ability by providing a lot of directive behaviours (e.g., explanations of the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the task).
• The leader addresses the lack of willingness with supportive behaviours such as encouragement, discussion and listening.
Situational leadership theory proposes that presented with a new task, a team’s main limiting factor is usually a lack of knowledge and skill. This is best met with a high degree of directive behaviour from the leader. This directive style is often called “Telling” or “Directing”. This assumes the group is motivated to begin with.
As the team begins to develop the ability, the leader provides less (but still significant) direction. However, as challenges surface, the team starts to experience a lack of confidence, low motivation and low commitment. The leader now continues to provide a fairly high level of direction but begins to also provide greater support by increasing encouragement, building confidence, coaching, etc. This style is called “Selling” or “Coaching”.
When the team’s ability is reaching a high level, they will need less and less direction from the leader. They will still need high support from the leader in the form of allowing mistakes, coaching, providing feedback, and in simply knowing the leader is nearby and on their side. This style is called “Participating” or “Supporting”.
Finally, the team reaches high performance in the task. They have the ability to do it well and they are highly motivated. The leader should reduce directive and overtly supportive behaviours, otherwise, it would feel like micromanaging and being overbearing. This style is called “Delegating”. Delegating is often where we want to end up but, remember, appropriate use of the style considers the appropriate use of the other styles in the lead-up.
Situational Leadership theory presents one simple framework that can help you, as a leader, determine people’s current state and what they need from you to move forward. Regardless of which leadership model you prefer, you will usually be more effective at helping people reach their full potential if you first “meet them where they are at”.