Situational Leadership

For a very long time, I deeply believed that treating everybody equally is the most unfair thing one could do. Instead, in order to treat everybody fair, you need to adjust your approach, you need to deal with situations differently. In everyday live, this can become a challenge especially if you lead a team that is diverse in culture, experience, expectations, and age.

Hence I was glad when I heard of the Situational Leadership approach. It gave me a framework for the believe that I have. Sometimes frameworks help to work in a structured way with difficult situations. There are various books about Situational Leadership. The one I read (though in German) is the following:

There are much more though, and also Youtube is a good source for shorter and longer clips about the topic.

In essence, Situational Leadership is differentiating between four development levels and four leadership styles.

Throughout D1 to D4 competence of employees in this group will grow. Their commitment or engagement, however, will fluctuate.

Someone new on a job might be very engaged, but not very competent yet. On the other end of the scale, a professional working in a field already for many years is highly committed and highly competent. In between, employees in D2 and D3 have a certain level of competence but either low (D2) or variable (D3) engagement. The reasons for this can be manifold, but it often comes from the realization that you know something and you have overcome the initial hurdles, but you also know that there is so much more that you are not familiar with. This may seem frightening and overwhelming.

The related four leadership styles differentiate from each other by the amount of direction and support an individual gets from their manager and in who is going to take a decision.

For an inexperienced D1, the S1 leadership style fits well. The person knows very little it needs to be directed a lot in order to learn. You will take all decisions. With growing competence of the employee, you will decrease the blunt direction and instead coach and support the employee so he can grow further by himself. You will talk through decisions with a D2, but you are the one that takes the decisions.

Finally, with S3 and S4 you are delegating the decision-making to the employee. Over time the employee will become more competent and confident and hence can make a decision; at first still consulting with you (S3) but ultimately completely independent from you (S4).

Some important additional points:

  • Assume everybody has potential and the willingness to use it.
  • Tell people that you are using situational leadership otherwise, people will be surprised by your change in behavior.
  • For the situational leadership model to be successful (and in my opinion any leadership model to be successful) it is key to agree on goals and to measure and rate them.
  • You can use more than one style on one person. Someone might be very experienced in one area, but very inexperienced in an area he just entered. Imagine a Senior Engineer with 15+ years of engineering experience who makes his first step into management. Those can be complex situations in day to day work live…

As usually, my goal with this article is not to dive into every detail of situational leadership, but just to give an overview and note down some key takeaways for my own purpose. There are plenty of resources on the internet as well as books that you consult for a lot more detail.