TITLE: Situational Leadership ® AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 24, 2005 8:26 AM DESC: I can learn something as a teacher and department head from the idea of being a situational leader. ----- BODY: Update (08/22/08): Situational Leadership ® is a registered trademark of the Center for Leadership Studies, Inc. This accounts for use of the ® symbol and the capitalization of the phrase throughout the entry. The more I think, read, and learn about management and leadership, the more I believe that managers will succeed best if they invert the traditional pyramid that has the president of a company at the top, managers in the middle, and employees on the bottom. I wrote about my credo of leader-as-servant in a recent essay. Now consider this quote:
... managers should work for their people, ... and not the reverse. ... If you think that your people are responsible and that your job is to be responsive, you really work hard to provide them with the resources and working conditions they need to accomplish the goals you've agreed to. You realize your job is not to do all the work yourself or sit back and wait to 'catch them doing something wrong', but to roll up your sleeves and help them win. If they win, you win.
Leadership and the One-Minute Manager This is from Page 18 of "Leadership and the One-Minute Manager", by Kenneth Blanchard, Patricia Zigarmi, and Drea Zigarmi. I've not read Blanchard's "One-Minute Manager" yet, but I ran across this thin volume in the stacks while checking out some other books on leadership and figured it would be worth a read. I've read some of Blanchard's stuff, and I find his staged storytelling approach an enjoyable way to learn material that might otherwise be pretty dry. This book extends the principles of the one-minute manager to "situational leadership", the idea that managers should adapt how they work with employees according to the context, specifically the task to be done and the employee's level of competence and confidence with the task. This approach emphasizes communication between manager and the employee, which allows the two to agree on a leadership style most suitable for the situation. On this approach, leadership style is "how a manager behaves, over time, when trying to influence the performance of others". The authors are careful to remind me that my style is not what I say my style is, or how I mean to behave, but how others say I behave. This reminds of a basic principle of object-oriented programming: a message is interpreted in the context of the receiver, not the sender. The same principle applies to human communication. In order to be a good situational leader, a manager must have three skills: Diagnosis An employee's development level and performance are a product of two variables, which Blanchard call 'competence' and 'commitment'. I tend to think of these variables in terms of skill and confidence. Whatever the terms, managers would do well to think about these variables when facing inadequate performance in the workplace. Performance problems are usually competence problems, commitment problems, or both. Blanchard asserts that most people follow a typical path through this two-dimensional space on the way from being a novice to being an expert: The odd change in commitment level follows the psychology of learners. Novices begin with a high level of commitment, eager to learn and willing to be instructed. But, "as people's skills grow, their confidence and motivation drop". Why? It's easy to become discouraged when you realize just how much you have left to learn, how much work it will take to become skilled. After commitment bottoms out, it can recover as the learner attains a higher level of competence and begins to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Blanchard's whole approach to Situational Leadership ® is for the leader to adapt her style to the changes of the developing learner in a way that maximizes the chance that the learner's commitment level recovers and grows stronger over time. That is essential if the manager hopes for the learner to stick with the task long enough to achieve a high level of competence. I accept this model as useful because I have observed the same progression in my students, especially when it comes to problem solving and programming. They begin a course eager to do almost anything I ask. As they learn enough skills to challenge harder problems, they begin to realize how much more they have to learn in order to be able to do a really good job. Without the right sort of guidance, university students can lose heart, give up, change their majors. With the right sort of guidance, they can reverse emotional course and become powerful problem solvers and programmers. How can instructor provide the right sort of guidance? balancing on the high wire As an aside, I have a feeling I'll be approaching Development Level 2 soon with my new administrative tasks. At times, I have a glimpse of how hard it will be to manage all the information coming at me and to balance the number of different activities and egos and goals that I encounter. Maybe a little self-awareness will help me combat any sudden desire to cry out as Job. :-) Flexibility The way a manager or instructor can provide the right sort of guidance to a particular employee at a particular point in time is to choose a leadership style that fits the context. There are four basic styles of leadership available to the situational leader: Like development levels, the leadership styles are a combination of two variables: directive behavior, by which the manager carefully structures the environment and closely supervises the employee, and supportive behavior, by which the manager praises, listens, and helps the employee. The idea is to choose the right combination to meet the needs of the employee on a particular task at a particular moment in time. As the authors say, "Leaders need to do what the people they supervise can't do for themselves at the present moment." We can think of the four leadership styles as occupying quadrants in a 2x2 grid: the four styles of situational leadership To match the unusual path that most people follow through the levels of development, a situational leader needs to follow a particular path through the two-dimensional space of leadership styles, in the order listed above: directing for Level 1, coaching for Level 2, supporting for Level 3, and delegating for Level 4. While the actual progression will depend on the specific employee, one can imagine the stereotypical path to be a bell-like curve from the lower left of the grid, up through the top quadrants, down through the lower right of the grid: This progression can help students, too. They usually need a level of coaching and support that increases throughout the first year, because they can become discouraged when their skills don't develop as quickly as they had hoped. At the same time, the instructor continues to structure the course carefully and direct their actions, though as the year progresses the students can begin to shoulder more of the burden for deciding what to do when. Communication remains important. Managers have to tell employees what they are doing, or they are likely to misinterpret the intention behind the leadership style. An employee who is being directing will often interpret the manager's constant attention as "I don't trust you", while an employee who is being delegated to may interpret the manager's lack of attention as "I don't care about you". When people lack information, they will fill in the blanks for themselves. Contracting That's where contracting comes in. The situational leader communicates with the people he supervises throughout the entire process of diagnosis and style selection. The person being supervised should be in agreement with the supervisor on the development level and thus the leadership style. When they disagree on development level, the supervisor should generally defer to the employee, on the notion that the employee knows himself best. The manager may then contract for a bit closer supervision over the short-term in order to confirm the diagnosis. When they disagree on leadership style, the employee should generally defer to the manager, who has developed experience in working with employees flexibly. Again, though, the manager may then agree to revisit the choice in a short time and make adjustments based on the employee's performance and comfort. Communication. Feedback. Adaptation. This all sounds 'agile' to me. .... Blanchard relates the Situational Leadership ® approach to "teaching to the exam":
Once your people are clear on their goals..., it's your job to do everything you can to help them accomplish those goals ... so that when it comes to performance evaluation ..., they get high ratings....
For Blanchard, teaching to the exam is a good idea, the right path to organizational and personal success. I tend to agree, as long as the leader's ultimate goal is to help people to develop into high competence, high commitment performers. The goal isn't to pass the exam; the goal is to learn. The leader's job is to help the learner succeed. Like the agile methods, this process is a low ceremony but high in individual discipline, on the part of both the leader and the learner. What should the situational leader do when a novice's performance is way out of bounds?
You go back to goal setting. You say, 'I made a mistake. I must have given you something to do that you didn't understand. Let's backtrack and start again.'
Trainers have to be able to praise, and they have to be able to admit to mistakes. We teachers should keep this in mind -- we aren't often inclined to admitting that we are the reason students aren't succeeding. Instructors do face a harder task that Blanchard's managers in this regard, though. Situational Leadership ® is based on one-on-one interactions, but an instructor may have a class of 15 or 30 or 100, with students at various levels of development and performance and confidence. In an ideal world, all teacher-student interactions might be one-on-one or in small groups, but that's not the world we live in right now. As I read books like this one, I have to keep in mind that my context as teacher and future department head is somewhat different from the authors'. A department head is not in the same relationship to the faculty as a manager is to employees. The relationship is more "first among equals" (my next leadership book to read...). Still, I find a lot of value in learning about how to be more self-aware and flexible in my interactions with others. -----