These days, it’s not uncommon to hear people obsessively talking about what “type of leader” they are. People are hungry for resources that will solidify their understanding of these archetypes. But obsessing over finding the right management style is a dead end; not only are certain methods outdated, but there’s no single tool that will work in every situation. Thus, we’re big proponents of situational leadership theory.
So, what are the characteristics of 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. First, let’s go over the seven classic management styles and where they fall short.
7 classic leadership styles and their disadvantages
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. It’s a dated approach to management that belongs more in an episode of The Sopranos than in a modern workplace.
Where it falls short: In just about every respect. Autocratic structures foster stressful work environments because of the rigid demands of leadership. People are often looking for another job when they work under an autocratic leader.
As the cousin of the autocratic style, bureaucratic leadership runs on rules, policy, and maintaining the status quo. The standard procedure always wins out. Proponents of this style will listen to employees, and may 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 business as usual, innovation and growth are often stifled. This style of leadership is rarely effective in today’s workplace.
Transactional leadership is a fairly common style of management: employees are rewarded for the work they do. They might be given incentives 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. Employees put in the least amount of effort for the best possible reward, which is hardly inspiring.
This hands-off style of leadership essentially transfers all authority to employees. In some ways, this is meaningful and empowering, as employees can take more ownership of their roles in creative ways. Where this becomes a challenge is that no one comes into a role or position knowing exactly 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 are unclear, and employees can become disillusioned when they feel they haven’t been given enough instruction to succeed.
The democratic approach to leadership relies on every team member providing input to help the team move towards the best decisions. The leader may still 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.
Focused on both company and employee growth, strategic leadership relies heavily on the manager’s ability to connect employees’ capabilities to the right strategic opportunities. Leaders in this style can work with a wide variety of people, often with great impact.
Where it falls short: While typically effective, the Achilles heel of strategic leadership is the difficulty of scaling. Leaders don’t have unlimited capacity to develop 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.
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 does situational leadership work?
Situational leadership offers 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 in each situation.
The situational leader utilizes a framework that relies on flexibility, adaptability, and thoughtful analysis of what people need to develop and succeed. By letting context 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.
Situational leadership theory changes the 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 4 stages of situational leadership
Different teams or individuals will be at different developmental levels in different areas of their job. Blanchard and Hersey’s situational leadership model focuses on developing specific skills based on that context, considering the needs of each person specific to the area of work they’re developing.
Situational leadership defines four development levels, paired with four behaviors, as a way of understanding a person’s growth and what is required from a leader to help them move forward. None of these behaviors is the “best,” because all of this is about taking a situational approach.
The enthusiastic beginner
This is where almost everyone starts when they’re learning a new role or skill. Their commitment is high because there hasn’t been any experience that would challenge it, and their competence is low because they have little to no experience.
People don’t know what they don’t know. When an employee or teammate is learning something new, 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 disillusioned learner
When employees are at the disillusioned learner level, they’ve probably run up against their shortcomings in the competency they’re trying to gain. This experience of failure or inadequacy, coupled with only marginally increased competence, can be incredibly deflating.
As a person is confronted with the shortcomings in their proficiency, the natural reaction is to become discouraged. If you perceive that shift in your direct report, it’s essential that you add highly supportive behavior while maintaining a high directive posture. The critical mistake 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 highly directive behavior is most important.
The capable-but-cautious performer
At this level, the employe starts to turn a corner. As their competence increases, often people will start to move out of that low-commitment funk.
This is a critical transition, according to situational leadership theory. As someone’s competence makes meaningful progress and their commitment level increases again, it’s important to scale back the level of direction you provide as a leader while maintaining a highly supportive environment.
The self-reliant achiever
At this point, the developing employee has 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.
If a self-reliant achiever is a pro at what they’re doing, inundating them with tons of direction or smothering them with check-ins will most likely backfire. It’s a waste of your time, and takes theirs away from the thing they’ve become really great at. Managers of self-reliant achievers should focus on delegating tasks more than supporting their work.
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.
High-functioning teams are supported 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 managers, practicing situational leadership, give their teammates exactly what they need, when they need it.
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