Different Leadership Styles for Different Situations


by Boris Joaquin | ExecutiveChronicles.com |

Whenever I conduct a seminar or workshop on leadership, to break the ice, I would ask participants to describe the best boss and worst boss they have had. Then everybody starts panicking because maybe their boss is in the same workshop or out of fear that their colleagues would tell on them. But I would reiterate that I wanted them to describe and not necessarily divulge who their best or worst boss is. And when they get started, the adjectives just come pouring in.

Generally, the descriptions they give are worded in the way their superiors related to them. There were approach-related comments like “They were kind”, “They appreciated me” or “They corrected me gently”.  But if you categorize the rest of the participants’ comments, essentially two categories of descriptions emerge: (1) their boss trained them properly, imparted knowledge to them or instructed them well, and (2) their boss freely delegated tasks to them or empowered them to make decisions. Then often, they would qualify the timeline they received such treatment from their boss.

While both descriptions showed the bosses’ empowering treatment of their staff, these describe two distinct approaches. We are actually looking at two leadership styles here: The one that gives instructions is what we call a directive leadership style while the other one who assigns tasks and empowers is called the delegating style of leadership.

But because participants qualified when they received such treatment from their bosses, I deduced that what figured in their preference is not just the boss’ particular leadership approach in general, but also the participant’s situation when the approach was applied.

This realization demonstrates Ken Blanchard and Paul Hershey’s leadership theory called Situational Leadership. As the name implies, this theory posts that a good leader will adapt his leadership to the task at hand and the goals and objectives to be accomplished, as well as to the ability or maturity of the one being led. Blanchard and Hershey developed this theory in 1967.  An average leadership theory lasts about five or six years and then it’s easily gone, but Situational Leadership has been used more widely in corporations and organizations around the world than ever, 50 years since its inception! Why would something last like that? Because it’s essentially true. And when regularly applied, it is effective in leading people.

Now let me show you why Situational Leadership is incredibly powerful.

In my younger years, an advertising agency hired me.  Although enthusiastic at the opportunity, I was ill-equipped for the particular job. Thank goodness my superior was very detailed, handing me a daily to-do list and orienting me in every single step so that I would do my job right. I appreciated the directive approach because it guided me and made me feel accomplished at the end of the day.

But regularized six months later and after almost a year of doing junior executive work, I noticed that my boss was still giving me a daily to-do list and instructing me in detail even for tasks I was already familiar with. This became frustrating for me. I became jaded. Eventually, it affected my work and it showed.

Later, I was transferred to another department, which introduced me to another boss. This time, the person supervising me did not micromanage me. Projects and tasks were simply handed or delegated to me. I felt a great deal of freedom, like chains were removed from my feet. But that euphoric feeling eventually became a nightmare when I committed major mistakes in my job.

I eventually resigned, but a wise executive told me that while the mistakes were mine, it was not entirely my fault. This was because in the final analysis, they realized that I was not equipped enough to handle the new projects – which required more experience – that were delegated to me.

In two different working situations, I found myself liking my boss at the beginning but resenting them in the end. In two different situations, I both initially enjoyed two different leadership approaches, but eventually found them no longer applicable to me. So what do we see here? One approach was directive, while the other was delegating, but we see that there was no one best leadership approach for me. Instead, each one had its merit depending on the development stage I was in.

What situational leadership is about is increasing the quality and quantity of your conversations with your people in a way that helps them win.

To be an effective situational leader, there are three skills you need to have: The skill of Diagnosis enables you to determine a person’s development level. Flexibility is learning to adjust your leadership style to what is needed at the moment by the person you are leading. And if you match leadership style to the person’s development level, his performance is going to improve, particularly when you add the third skill: Partnering for Performance. This is when you understand and apply the theory as you work closely with people so that they’re ready to go in a way that helps them win. And when they win, you win.

Let’s start off with diagnosis. There are four levels of development, going from D1 to D4. The lowest level of development is when somebody is low in competence but high in commitment. We call this the Enthusiastic Beginner. They’re all excited but they don’t know what they’re doing. That was what I was straight out of college and as a young upstart! I was a D1, excited and passionate about my work. But enthusiasm was not enough to get me through the job. My boss did well by giving me precise directions and I loved it.

I was apparently already a D2 when I thought the boss was not confident enough to let me do things on my own. At this second stage, I had already developed some competence because I knew more than I did before because of how my detailed boss trained me. Because I did not feel trusted to be able to do the job, I lost confidence and my commitment to my job suffered. I had then become a Disillusioned Learner.

Now, somebody needs to help you get through disillusionment; otherwise, you quit. The third level of development is when you have moderate to high competence but your commitment varies. Why? Because by then, your confidence is a little shaky. Why?  Because you’ve never done it all by yourself. And so, D3 is a Capable and Cautious Performer. And then you hope that somebody handles you properly through this stage so that you can eventually become a D4, or a Self-Reliant Achiever or a Peak Performer who is high on competence and high on commitment, and really knows how to do the task at hand.

When you are able to diagnose the development level of the person you are supposed to lead, then you would have to know what leadership style to provide. Flexibility enables you to match the appropriate leadership style to each of the four development levels. To do that, we need to understand the two dimensions to leadership: 1) directive behavior — telling people what to do, how to do it, when to do it, where to do it, and closely supervising them; and 2) supportive behavior — when you listen to people, involve them in decision-making, facilitate their interactions with other people and affirm them.

Let me explain this further. From my parents who were both college professors, I learned that there are two philosophies of teaching. First, the Empty Barrel philosophy of teaching assumes that kids come to school with an empty barrel of knowledge. So, what’s the job of the teacher? To fill it up. Directive behavior is a barrel-filling style. The other approach to teaching employs a Full-Barrel philosophy, or the belief that students come to class with their barrels full of knowledge and experience but maybe not particularly organized for this particular course. So, what’s the job of the teacher? To draw that knowledge and experience out of them and help them organize it. This barrel-drawing style is supportive in nature.

Now, look at the combinations you see in the four leadership styles. So, for example, suppose I need to buy gift prizes for my workshop, if I say to Oliver, “Oliver, I need gift prizes for my workshop games. Now, what I want you to do is go to the convenience store and buy me a few bags of a specific brand of chocolates because people love receiving chocolates. And when you’re finished, report back to me.” Now, that’s the same approach my first boss did to me for more than one year! That’s leadership style one, high on directive behavior and low on supportive behavior – a barrel-filling style. If I wanted to use style three, which is high on supportive behavior, low on directive behavior, I would say, “Oliver, I need gift prizes for my workshop games. What do you think we buy that is quick and easy to get?” See, I draw the knowledge out of him. It’s a barrel-drawing out style.

Now, in between style 1 and 3 is style 2, which is coaching. Everybody knows that coaching both directs and supports, but is both barrel-filling and barrel-drawing-out. And so, on buying prizes for my workshop games, if I said, “Oliver, I need prizes for my workshop games. What I think you ought to do is to go the convenient store and buy me a few bags of chocolates because people love receiving chocolates. What do you think? Do have any questions? Do you have any suggestions?” So, I fill his barrel, but I also draw out of his barrel.

Style 4, on the other hand, is delegating, which is low on both direction and support. So if I was using the delegating style with Oliver for buying prizes, I’d say, “Oliver, I need prizes for my workshop today. Please take care of it.” But I’ll make sure to check on Oliver. I’ll probably call him when he is in the convenience store just to make sure he is not buying the wrong item or going out of budget. But more than that, I would want him to know that I trust him to do a great job.

Now, a lot of managers make a mistake and abdicate rather than delegate. When you delegate, you give them the responsibility, but you’re always there if they want to communicate with you when they need help. And that’s what absolutely went wrong with the second boss I mentioned in my story who freely delegated everything to a year-old junior executive.

Now you can see, I used the same example — buying gift prizes for my workshop — to show you all four leadership styles to demonstrate that situational leadership is a task-specific concept. And so, for any one particular goal, you can use any one of the four leadership styles because the person could be in any one of the four development levels for that particular task. People are not globally at any one of the development levels; that varies depending on what you are asking him to do.

For example, I trained some sales staff about a year ago on four different responsibilities: sales, service, administration and team contribution. It’s not unheard of for one to be great at sales but lousy at administrative jobs. And so, with the same person, I had to employ one leadership style for training them on sales and a different one for training them in administrative responsibilities. Because there were people who were great in administrative responsibilities but could not sell a single unit even if they were selling to a family member.

Now, in partnering for performance, you match your leadership style with the development level of the person you are leading on a particular task. Ideally, you would want the other person to understand the concept of situational leadership. Then, you will want to agree on your goals and objectives on a task. Then both you and the person you are leading would separately assess his development level, and come back to agree on that, and therefore also the corresponding goals you would have for the task. Once you have done that, you can start to agree on the appropriate leadership style to use with them for that particular task. Then, deliver what you promised.

Now, how do we know what leadership style goes with which development level? Well, if you look at the curve going through the model, it’s like a railroad track because if you start at station one, Directing, and you want to get to station four, Delegating, you have to stay on the track. And that track also beautifully follows the four stops on the development level down below.

Situational Leadership is a wonderful concept because it says that there is not one best leadership style; it all depends on the development level of people on particular tasks. We need to give them what they need when they need it. So there is no such thing as a best leadership style when it comes to defining what a good or bad boss is. Instead, a great leader is someone who can gradually change his or her leadership style so that the people under them can progress from one development level to another. That leader should be there to praise his people when they need it. He or she should be able to redirect their people when they need it. He or she should be there to turn things over to them when they need it.

Shall I dare say it then? The best boss is a situational leader.


About the Author

Profile PhotoBoris Joaquin is a top-ranked public speaker and masterful trainer for leadership programs and other soft skills. He is a seasoned management consultant, being involved in various industries and business sizes, from multinationals to locally owned enterprises. Presently, he’s the President & Chief Equipping Officer of Breakthrough Leadership® Management Consultancy, Inc.