“Agile” (which means being able to be mentally quick and to adapt to new situations fast) is one of the top buzzwords we hear today. 

The term was first used in software development practices over 30 years ago. Throughout the last three decades, agile methodologies have grown in popularity for the wider information technologies industries and project management approaches and is now used in the way we manage employees.

Using an adaptive approach in management, like situational leadership, allows employees to feel seen, heard, and understood in their job. In turn, businesses can see 21% higher profits from having engaged, happy employees.

Sounds like a win-win, right?

What is situational leadership?

Situational leadership is a theoretical framework that allows leaders to identify the appropriate management style needed for a specific type of employee. With four unique styles of leadership, it allows for a more dynamic and adaptive approach to directing teams with multiple working styles or experience levels.

This style of leadership contrasts to trait leadership, wherein the person in charge bases their actions on their own traits and abilities, like being organized, social, or ambitious. With trait leadership, people are chosen to be leaders based on “born with” traits such as their personality. While selecting leaders based on traits can help companies identify who to place in charge, doing so doesn’t guarantee that the leaders will be as willing to support and encourage growth for their team members as situational leaders will be.

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Characteristics of situational leaders

For a situational leader, being able to diagnose an issue is extremely important. Not being able to correctly identify the challenges that a team member is facing will ultimately prevent the leader from being able to accurately apply any of the situational leadership styles. 

Good situational leaders need to be flexible and in sync with their environment. As things happen, they can align their language and actions appropriately. As such, they also need to be able to handle ambiguity well and have a strong understanding of their intuition for decision-making beyond the framework’s vague guidelines.

Situational leaders should be completely honest, and need to be part of the development process with an employee. Many leadership styles take consistent time and energy before they contribute to a true turnaround in employee or team performance. As such, leaders need to be willing to put in this energy and commit to their team’s long-term developmental goals. 

Situational leadership styles

1 Directing

This leadership style is the most direct. It involves using clear, concise language to tell another employee exactly what to do and when. 

As the least compassionate of all the leadership styles, directing is best used for extraordinary or emergency situations when immediate action is required. Leaders can use this method of communication to convey a message to one team member so this employee can then share it with the rest of the team when the leader is not otherwise able to do so. 

It’s important to note that while this is the most direct and commanding of all the leadership styles, you shouldn’t be harsh, use yelling, or be otherwise offensive to the team members receiving the message when directing.

2 Coaching

Coaching is the most “hands-on” style. This is the best approach to use with an employee who is just learning a large portion of their job requirements for the first time. Think of employees who are entering the workforce for the first time, or even those who are making a career pivot.

Situational managers can support these employees by walking them step-by-step through their new responsibilities. It’s the most time-consuming approach, but it provides the best in-depth learning for the team member. Frequent check-ins and open communication channels are super important in this style.

3 Supporting

The supportive leadership style is sometimes also referred to as the “selling” style, because it often involves the manager trying to convince the employee that they’re capable of a new responsibility. In this case, the employee being managed usually has more experience in the field already, but not quite enough that they can do tasks completely without direction. 

In this style, managers can have weekly one-on-one meetings with their team, invite new employees into brainstorming sessions, and encourage their employees to start taking more initiative and risk on upcoming projects.

4 Delegating

Delegating is a great leadership style to use with employees who already have the experience and confidence to perform a role well. Employees managed in this style should be trusted to take measurable, educated risks for the purpose of learning and bringing insights into the team.

At this level, employees can take more external meetings on their own, manage their own schedule, and sometimes decide for themselves if they would prefer to take on one task over another.

When delegating to employees, leaders should maintain regular one-on-ones and team bonding activities to continue keeping communication pathways open across the team.

Why is situational leadership effective? 

  • Is a straightforward framework with only four areas to select from.
  • Allows leaders flexibility in their approach depending on the employee and the situation.
  • Focuses on building trust and empathy within teams.
  • Accounts for challenges and the leader’s ability to coach, support, or direct their way through them. 
  • Prioritises development and growth for employees.
  • Boosts collaboration and productivity within teams.
  • Encourages leaders to be creative and proactive in their outreach to employees.
  • Requires honesty, transparency, and cooperation between all members.
  • Involves the leader with employee-level tasks.
  • Provides a clear vision of progress within the team.

Disadvantages of situational leadership

1. Focuses on short-term goals. The leader looks only at the next level of progress, not the long-term progress.

2. Places a lot of responsibility on the leader to reach out regularly and track employees’ growth, which involves a large time commitment.

3. Expects leaders to rely on intuition, which can be especially difficult for new managers. There is a lot of ambiguity within the framework.

4. Places a lot of weight on having frequent communication between the employee and leader, which isn’t always possible.

5. Makes direct reports depend on the leader’s approach with them, and employees have less say in how they would like to be managed. 

6. Is an ineffective process in fast-paced or task-oriented environments that don’t allow a lot of time for learning and reflection. 

7. Puts pressure on the leader to accurately assess the maturity level of their employees, while the leader may not have the ability or experience to do so.  

8. Leads to employees who are confused or unhappy in their role if their maturity level is incorrectly assessed, which could then lead to eventual turnover.

9. Is exhausting in the long term for a leader who is consistently switching leadership styles to track and manage larger teams.

10. Requires a “restart” for the team if the leader were to ever leave, since it would be difficult to find a replacement that can align well with the current foundation.

Examples of situational leadership

Situational leadership can be a tough concept to act out in the day-to-day realities of doing business. But let’s look at how have some real world leaders have used situational leadership:

Steve Jobs is one example. While most well-known for having an autocratic management style, he also had some displays of great situational leadership. Through motivating unpopular teams within his company, Jobs generated an additional level of excitement for his product launches. He allowed product managers to take ownership of their projects and allowed them to take a lot of risk in their work, which in turn sparked high levels of innovation. In this way, he was directing his employees and delegating to them to help them feel like part of Apple’s success journey.

In the sporting world, John Wooden is also a notable example of a situational leader. As an NBA basketball coach, he was well known for supporting his full team and encouraging collaboration amongst all players. His empathetic approach to coaching meant that he noticed players who were struggling and helped them find new ways to improve their game, rather than letting them off the team for low performances. In this respect, he displayed great coaching and supporting skills. 

Parting advice 

A great situational leader needs to have high emotional intelligence and a lot of experience working with different types of employees. They also need to understand that people work differently, have unique motivations, and prefer to communicate in a variety of ways.

Ultimately, to be an effective situational leader, an individual should be flexible and well-versed in people management. It takes time and patience to build a strong relationship between a leader and a team. However, when this foundation is built, it can lead to long-lasting growth for the employee and high retention rates for the company, making the effort completely worthwhile.