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Situational Leadership

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

I have long advocated for the Situational Leadership model Paul Hersey, and Ken Blanchard developed.


Over the years, I've found it to be an invaluable framework for personal and professional growth and for guiding those I've had the privilege to lead.


A lot of leadership discussion is, well, 'fluff'. But this strategy fundamentally changed how I approached management and leadership, how I engage with people, and also how I empathise. I'm not making any affiliated commission from this article; it is written only to help you to perhaps discover a technique that might be helpful.


What is Situational Leadership?

In a nutshell, Situational Leadership II (or SL2) is a technique for adapting your leadership style according to the followers' (sorry, I've really struggled to find a better word than 'follower' - hopefully, it'll make sense as we proceed) unique needs and maturity levels based on a given task and their ability to execute.


Remember, leadership and management are two different things.


Sure, there's a Venn diagram overlap between them, and it's unlikely you can be any kind of manager without leadership skills, but being a manager is about being at a point in the hierarchy, giving orders, direction and setting goals. Management typically involves processes, systems, planning, budgeting, staffing, and evaluating performance to achieve specific objectives within an organisation.



A Venn diagram of management vs leadership skills


Leadership is a soft skill, and you don't need to be in a position of power to be a leader; it's the process of 'influence' and inspiration.


The Situational Leadership model delineates four distinct stages, or leadership styles, based on the support and direction needed. It helps leaders to tailor their approach to each employee or follower.


Knowing when and how to apply the different approaches is important to success with the approach, and it is key that the follower understands why you are taking a certain approach and what they can expect as they mature. Otherwise, the situation can result in resentment around micromanagement in the earlier stages.


By talking it through with the follower, you may learn that they have a different opinion of how much support and direction they need, which, of course, may or may not differ from your own opinion, but if it does, that gives you something to discuss.


The Situational Leadership Model


Below is a summary of the Situational Leadership model. As you can see, it indicates movement through each stage, starting with 'S1' and progressing to 'S4'. This shows the different leadership styles that should be applied depending on the follower's directive and supportive needs, which will change over time.


As the follower increases in capability and confidence, the leadership style changes with them. It starts as highly directive and instructional and moves through to ultimately delegating and letting them get on with things but staying available if needed.

A diagram of the Situational Leadership model
A diagram of the Situational Leadership model

The Stages of Leadership


Directing (S1)


The initial stage of 'Directing' is characterised by the leader offering explicit instructions and supervision to less experienced followers.


Here, we are giving guidance on tackling the issue, perhaps explicit training or instruction, or maybe advice.


It's important to understand that we aren't necessarily talking about someone who is not a skilled and knowledgeable person, but that they may be new to a task or the organisation. So, in the early days, they may need more instruction and not as much encouragement. Like me, when I'm looking for the coffee machine on my first day in a new office; I need to be pointed in the right direction and maybe shown how the darn thing works.


Leaders focus on providing clear guidance, setting goals, and monitoring progress closely to ensure the successful completion of tasks.


The follower will likely be full of naive optimism, whereby they'll overestimate their abilities or underestimate the complexity of the task ahead. So, they probably don't need a huge amount of support and confidence building but will require a high level of direction, whether they recognise it or not.



a man falling out of a boat

When I learned to sail, I started as a 'noob' as my kids say, and knew nothing about boats at all. I was a little nervous, thinking, 'How hard can this be?' Fortunately, I had a great teacher who let me get on with things and promptly watched me step off the jetty, onto my boat, which rolled under my weight, cast me sideways around the mast, and ended with me landing on my back in the boat next to mine (well, now it was my new boat as possession is nine-tenths of the law) with the class laughing at me.


And my wife. Some scars will never heal.


What should have happened, given my competence levels and overconfidence, was that I needed a high level of direction as to how to get into the boat without looking like an idiot.


The instructor should have adjusted his leadership style to match my ability, which, looking back on it, maybe he didn't do just because it was probably the highlight of his day watching people fall into and out of their boats... or maybe he just didn't understand the SL2 model.

Coaching (S2)


As the follower transitions out of the 'Directing Stage', the leader moves into a coaching role as the follower builds their competence and confidence.


While still offering direction and guidance, the leader should foster open communications and encourages input from the follower, thereby supporting their skill development and bolstering their self-assurance.


This is the trickiest phase in my experience, as you'll likely get pushback from the follower if you don't discuss the approach and their needs with them openly. And, to be clear, Situational Leadership is an approach that should be clearly on the table, and both parties should talk about the perceived needs.


At this stage, the follower may start to realise the level of complexity in the task assigned and may therefore feel a little disheartened as they learn it's going to take more effort or time than they had anticipated (a stage I go through with every DIY job I start). So, we as leaders have to give them a bit of additional support as well as direction to push them up that hill, building their confidence and ability.


This is the point in the boating analogy, it's where you turn too tightly and the boat tips over and you find yourself going for an unscheduled swim. As a follower, you need a high level of direction from the instructor on how to right a boat that's upside down, and encouragement that it's within your ability to do so.


Supporting (S3)


When followers attain moderate competence and self-confidence, the leader adopts a supportive stance.


At this juncture, the leader's role involves facilitating the follower's efforts, offering encouragement, and recognising achievements. Furthermore, by listening, empowering, and collaborating with followers, the leader helps hone their problem-solving and decision-making capabilities.


When we get here, we are really starting to roll. As a leader, we shout from the sidelines things like 'You got this, buddy!' and 'Go get em!' and other cliches like a dad teaching his kids to ride a bike. We keep the support in place, but the direction and explicit instruction are being withdrawn.




a man eating a sandwich in a boat being sailed by a monkey

Delegating (S4)


In the final stage, the leader assumes a delegating role for followers who exhibit high levels of competence and confidence.


This involves entrusting tasks and responsibilities to followers, granting them the autonomy to work independently and make informed decisions.


Hands off, stabilisers off. If they need you, they'll ask you.


While the leader remains accessible for consultation and assistance, they trust the follower's ability to execute the task effectively. Effectively we let them get on and do it. It might take a few hours, days, weeks or months to get here depending upon the nature of the task, but once there, the individual is off to the races.


And me and my boat were sailing into the distance, leaving all the other suckers behind in my literal wake, and I won that damn race. Oh yes, I did...


Summary


There is so much more that can be said around this subject and templates that can facilitate discussion, so I do recommend a book like "Leadership and the One Minute Manager", or better yet, getting on a two-day course if you can get access to one.

The cover of "leadership and the one minute manager" book

By adopting the Situational Leadership model, leaders can attune their approach to the specific needs of their followers, fostering personal and professional growth over time.


To further explore the Situational Leadership model and access relevant training resources, visit: https://www.kenblanchard.com/Solutions/SLII



A superhero in a boat


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About the author

Hi, I'm Alan, and have been working within the IT sector for over 30 years.

For the last 15 years, I've focused on IT Governance, Information Security, Projects and Service Management across various styles of organisations and markets.

I hold a degree in Information Systems, ITIL Expert certificate, PRINCE2 Practitioner and CISMP (Information Security Management).

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