It Depends: Situations and Flexible Leadership

Leadership depends. It depends on the situation. At least that is what situational models of leadership suggest.

Situational (or Contingency) models suggest that the type of leadership a leader adopts should reflect the context. So a leader would consider the nature of the task, the culture and objectives of the organization, the people and resources available, and the general environment when selecting their approach to leadership.

Leaders can select aversive, directive, transactional, transformational or empowering leadership approaches.  Ideally these approaches match the situation. For example, aversive or directive leadership styles have been shown to be counter-productive when the objective is to develop innovative products and services.

Situational theories suggest that effective leaders assess the situation and match their approaches to the situation. There are some underlying assumptions about situational leadership.  First it assumes that leaders are self-aware, that they understand and explicitly choose an approach to leading.  Although I can’t show research to support this, my own personal experience suggests that we might just rely on our preferred style in all situations. (Well, at least many of us might do that, the odd enlightened individual might actually be making choices…) Secondly, it makes the assumption that we have the flexibility to change our leadership approach, in other words, that we have the ability to change approach. It also assumes that we are willing to change our approach.  Some of us are like Popeye (“I yam what I yam”).  (Okay, I just dated myself…)

The situational approach also assumes that the leader has effective skills to assess the situation quickly and accurately. Finally, it assumes that leadership styles or approaches are a behaviour, easily adopted and changed, rather than derived from personality traits, which are not so easily changed.

I firmly believe that situational leadership is part of the puzzle. But it isn’t possible to just say to an employee “change your leadership style based on the situation”, and expect them to become better leaders.

Situational leadership depends on an accurate self-assessment of leadership approach, a willingness to be flexible in style, and effective analysis of each and every situation. Matching styles to situations takes awareness, identification skills, coaching and practice. It is a conscious process. What are you doing to develop situational leadership skills in yourself and your followers?

Source: Sims, Henry, Faraj, Samer, and Yun, Seokhwa. “When Should a leader be directove or empowering? How to develop your own situational theory of leadership” Business Horizons. (2009) 52, 149 – 158.


7 replies »

  1. Hi Colleen,
    Yet another excellent post. My experiences are similar to yours. Knowing that effective leadership requires a variety of styles, best matched to the situation is one thing…the ability to apply these is quite another. I have previously participated in leadership training based on situational leadership concepts with colleagues and sadly, have generally seen little evidence of change or focused, continued learning as a result. This is for many reasons but one of the key ‘misses’ in my mind is that they are not required to display this in their leadership role through both existing cultural norms and/or role-models in their own leaders. As a result most managers let themselves off the hook in the journey towards leadership. Self-awareness is key, of course, however the want and need to develop these skills is a must!

    • Generally I find that training in general does not generate change in organizations. First, the targeted behavioural change needs to be incorporated into organizational and personal objectives. Second, the change needs to be part of a performance evaluation scheme, that is the person in question needs to be evaluated on whether or not they have achieved the change. Third, the people undergoing the training need ongoing modeling,training and coaching in order to reinforce the behaviour. Finally, the senior managers championing this change must not only role model the change in themselves, but they need to stay focused on institutionalizing the change over an extremely long period of time.

      Very few leadership development/training programs are integrated enough or reinforce new behaviours over a long enough period of time to result in changed behaviour.

      I agree that self-awareness is a key to effective leadership. The question is how do we institutionalize the practice of reflection and self-awareness? Our organizations don’t generally value reflection, they value action. Hmmm. Something to ponder.

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