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.
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
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
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:
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:
- diagnosis, the ability to determine the needs of employees
according to their development level with the task at hand
- flexibility, the ability to apply one of four different
styles, depending on the diagnosis, and
- contracting, the ability to work with employee to set
the parameters of their interaction
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?
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
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. :-)
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:
- Level 1, low competence and high commitment
- Level 2, some competence and low commitment
- Level 3, high competence and variable commitment
- Level 4, high competence and high commitment
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
We can think of the four leadership styles as occupying
quadrants in a 2x2 grid:
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.
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":
- As the employee's competence increases, the leader
slowly reduces the degree of directive behavior,
eventually to 0.
- As the employee's confidence wanes, the leader
slowly ratchets up the degree of support provided.
This helps the employee get through periods of
doubt and eventually regain a confidence born out
of competence. When that confidence arrives, the
leader slowly reduces the degree of support provides
until the employee is managing himself.
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
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