These days, it’s not uncommon to hear people obsessively talking about what “type of leader” they are. People are hungry for leadership style resources that will solidify their understanding of these leadership archetypes.

The reality is that ‘type of leadership’ conversations and resources often miss the point. Obsessing over finding the right management style is a dead end. Not only are certain leadership styles outdated (more on this below), it’s impossible to find a single tool that will work every time and in every situation. This is why we’re such big proponents of situational leadership theory.

So, what is situational leadership? Developed by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey in their book, Management of Organizational Behavior, the situational leadership model takes a thoughtful, development-focused and contextual approach to leadership.

If you want to build an effective, high-performing team that will stay relevant for years to come, situational leadership is the way to do it. Later in this post, I’ll breakdown what situational leadership styles look like in the context of the workplace, but first, let’s go over the 7 classic leadership styles and where they fall short:

The classic leadership styles might not actually work

Autocratic leadership

This style of leadership is what we tend to see in the movies. The boss is the boss. If you’re a leader, you make all the decisions, hold all the power and have little need to gather team input. Employees and teammates are just people who follow orders. Overall, Autocratic leadership is a dated approach to management that belongs more in an episode of The Sopranos than in today’s workplace.

Where it falls short: In just about every respect. Autocratic structures continuously apply pressure to their members because of the rigid demands of leadership. People are almost always looking for another job when they work under an autocratic leader.

Bureaucratic leadership

The cousin of the autocratic style, bureacratic leadership runs on rules, policy and status quo. The standard procedure always wins out. Leaders in this style will listen to employees, and can even acknowledge their good ideas, but if those ideas don’t fit within the established system, they aren’t happening.

Where it falls short: Because bureaucratic leadership is always beholden to the status quo, innovation and growth are often stifled. This style of leadership is rarely effective in today’s workplace.

Transactional leadership

Transactional leadership is a fairly common style of managing: employees are rewarded for what they do. They might be given incentives to reach if the manager is looking to boost productivity, but the reward is always proportional to action.

Where it falls short: The pitfall of transactional leadership is that it creates an environment where employees aren’t encouraged to do anything beyond their job description. Work becomes about putting in the least amount of effort for the best possible reward, which is hardly inspiring.

Laissez-faire leadership

This hands-off style of leading essential transfers all authority to employees. In some ways, this is meaningful and empowering to employees to take more ownership of their roles in creative ways. Where this becomes a challenge is that no one comes into a role or position perfectly knowing what they should do. We need leaders to help us grow, answer questions, and provide oversight.

Where it falls short: In lieu of clear direction, team goals and expectations can become unclear, and employees can actually become disillusioned when they feel they haven’t been given enough instruction to succeed.

Democratic leadership

By taking a participatory approach to leadership, the Democratic style of leadership relies on every team member providing input to help the team move towards the best decisions. The leader may still have to make the ultimate call, but it will likely be in sync with the conversations that have been happening on the team.

Where it falls short: This approach is highly valued but requires members to be capable of participation. If leaders or employees aren’t active and engaged, it falls apart. Apathy is the enemy of democratic leadership.

Strategic leadership

Focused on both company and employee growth, strategic leadership relies heavily on the manager’s ability to connect employee skills to the right strategic opportunities. Leaders in this style can work with a wide variety of people, often to great impact.

Where it falls short: While typically effective, the Achilles heel of strategic leadership is the difficulty it has in scaling. Leaders don’t have unlimited capacity to develop infinite employees. At some point, the quality of leadership diminishes, and growth is inhibited. Additionally, the best decisions for your organization won’t always be the best decisions for employee development, and promises you may have made to develop people in a specific way may go unmet.

Transformational leadership

This is the leadership style most often mythologized in organizations that prioritize growth. Constantly pushing employees beyond set goals, this leadership style requires dynamic communication skills to win people over to a new vision of what is possible within themselves and for the company.

Where it falls short: Because transformational leaders are always tinkering and reworking the structures of the company, employees can suffer innovation fatigue. Additionally, employee’s development can fall by the wayside because the leader is always thinking about the “next big thing.”


How situational leadership is different

What situational leadership offers is an alternative to the idea of ‘one-size fits all’ leadership. It’s not about finding the perfect leadership style; it’s about leading the right way for the right situation.

The situational leader utilizes a framework that relies on flexibility, adaptability and thoughtful analysis of what the people you’re leading need to develop and succeed. By letting context (let’s call this both the details of a person’s development + the realities of the task at hand) inform what an appropriate leadership style looks like in each situation as it occurs, leaders are able to take a nuanced approach to their responsibilities, to greater impact.

Situational leadership theory changes the leadership conversation from “who am I and how do I lead?” to “who is the person in front of me, and what do they need from me in order to succeed?”

The four stages of situational leadership

Any given team or individual will be at different developmental levels in different areas of their job. Situational leadership focuses on developing specific skills. As a result, you’ll need to see the needs of each person specific to the area of work that you’re developing with them.

Situational leadership uses four development levels, paired with four leadership behaviors as a way of understanding a person’s growth and what is required from a leader to help them move forward.

Below are the four levels of development, with their corresponding behaviors of situational leadership, and examples to help illustrate how this all looks in action. Remember! None of these behaviors is the ‘best style’, because all of this is about taking a situational approach:

Stage one: Directing people as they get started

Development Level: The Enthusiastic Beginner: Low Competence, High Commitment.

This is where almost everyone starts when they’re learning a new skill or when they’re new to a job. Their commitment is high because there hasn’t been any experience that would challenge it, and their competence is low because it’s a skill or situation where they have little to no experience.

Leadership Behavior: Directing: High Directive, Low Supportive Behavior

People don’t know what they don’t know. When an employee or teammate is learning a new skill, the best leadership for them will be highly directive. They don’t need to be encouraged that they can do it, as much as they need to be told what to do. This isn’t demeaning; it’s just the reality of starting to learn something new. The alternative of being really encouraging with zero specifics can’t help the person you’re leading move forward.

Example: You run a logo/branding agency, Dope Logos Inc. that recently decided to add company website development to your service offerings. You’ve just landed your first big logo/branding strategy/website project for dog biscuit giant, Doggo Good Boy Treats. While the team is excited to stretch themselves on an ambitious project, it will require a lot of learning.

What situational leadership looks like: This is the first time that the team has integrated website development into your general project process. While they are motivated to try something new, in order to succeed, your team will need you to be highly directive in exactly how to pull this off.


Stage two: Coaching people through growing pains

Development Level: Disillusioned Learner: Low to Some Competence, Low Commitment

Maybe the most challenging developmental quadrant, when people are in the Disillusioned Learner level, they’ve probably run up against their shortcomings in the skill they’re trying to gain. This experience of failure or inadequacy, coupled with only marginally increased competence can be incredibly deflating for people.

Leadership Behavior: Coaching: High Directive, High Supportive Behavior

As a person starts to be confronted with the ways that their skills are still not proficient, the natural reaction is to become discouraged. As you begin to perceive that shift in your teammate, it’s essential that you add highly supportive behavior while maintaining a high directive posture. The critical mistake that leaders make in this stage is to think that because the person has been working at a skill that they no longer need direction, but this is actually the stage where continuing high directive behavior is most important.

Example: 2 weeks later, you’ve just gotten your first round of feedback from Doggo Good Boy Treats on your website outlines. They hate it. The marketing director who hired Dope Logos for this job is considering looking for another agency to fulfill the work. The team is crushed. Dope Logos is known for excellent work, and your team is full of people who consider themselves experts at what they do. In particular, your lead web developer, Raul, is shell shocked at the negative feedback. With morale at an all time low, people are dejected, and wanting to drop the website offering altogether.

What situational leadership looks like: As a leader, it’s critical that in addition to continuing your high level of project direction (specifically with the website), that you also engage in highly supportive behavior. With morale low, your job is to help people believe they can succeed in this project. In particular, setting aside time to support Raul through what has been a painful learning curve is key.


Stage three: Supporting people as their skills develop

Development Level: Capable-But-Cautious Performer: Moderate to High Competence, Variable Commitment

The third level is where people start to turn a corner. As their competence increases in the skill they’re developing, often people will start to move out of the low commitment funk they’ve been in (though this doesn’t happen right away.)

Leadership Behavior: Supporting: Low Directive, High Supportive Behavior

This is a critical transition in situational leadership theory. As someone’s skill competence begins to increase significantly, and their commitment level to learning the skill increases again, it’s important to scale back the level of direction that you provide as a leader while maintaining a highly supportive environment.

Example: 1 week after Doggo Good Boy’s negative feedback, things are starting to turn a corner. There’s progress on the website, and they aren’t going to drop you in favor of another agency. They still have lots of feedback, but it’s helpful and needed to produce the best possible website. The team still feels sluggish as they struggle to fit website design into Dope Logo’s overall project process, but in general, things are getting better. The one exception to the positive trend is Tiffany. Tiffany is your most gifted graphic designer. She’s also often visibly frustrated that things seem to take longer now.

What situational leadership looks like: For your team members who are trending positive, it would be appropriate to offer slightly less direction. Given the volatile state of the team the past few weeks, it’s important to not mistake progress for resolution. Maintaining a posture that skews towards high support will be important, as well as having specific supporting behavior with Tiffany.


Stage four: Delegating to your high performers

Development Level: Self-Reliant Achiever: High Competence, High Commitment

At this point, the person being developed as reached a point of mastery in the skill they were learning. They can perform at a high level and feel confident about the quality of their contributions.

Leadership Behavior: Delegating: Low Directive, Low Supportive Behavior

At this point, the person that you’re working with has mastered the skill. If they’re a pro at what they’re doing, inundating them with tons of direction or smothering them with check-ins is most likely going to backfire. It’s both a waste of your time and takes theirs away from the thing they’ve become really great at.

Example: Your logo/branding strategy/website project with Doggo Good Boy Treats comes to a close. Though it was difficult, in the final two weeks your team really came into their own and figured out how to integrate website design and development into its creative process. The client is happy, your team is feeling awesome and are eager for the next project.

What situational leadership looks like: Once the team is performing at a high level, it’s time to scale back your efforts. The primary issue you were focused on: helping integrate website design into your project process, has been resolved. By moving to a low directive, low support behavior, you’re communicating that you trust your team’s skill and decision-making process. As a leader, you’re now free to focus on other skills your team needs to develop.

Good leaders take different behavioral approaches to each of these developmental levels because what each level requires to succeed is different. There is no one size fits all approach to leadership, and you should be suspicious of anyone who claims otherwise.

The truth is that high functioning teams are led by leaders who focus on the practical needs of the people they’re leading and offer support specific to the areas where their team is stuck. Smart leaders give their teammates exactly what they need when they need it.

How to win at situational leadership when other st...