What is situational leadership and why is it hot right now?

Sophie Heatley · 28 Sep

Situational leadership theory purports that there is no single best style of leadership. It's fundamental principal is that the most effective leaders adapt their style of leadership based on the current climate of their company and on the development of their employees.

In this way, it is up to the leader to alter the way they approach leading to match company conditions, not the other way around. By definition, it is literally a situational approach to leadership.

Why is situational leadership a hot topic?

Situational leadership is a hot topic right now because it lends itself well to the unpredictable modern business world. In order for companies to keep afloat today, it is paramount that their management style and structure adapts to the demands of our contemporary commercial culture.

Constant new technological advancements, industry trends and challenging competition demand a situational leadership model – that is if a company wants to stay up-to-date.

Situational leadership models are commonly referred to as a ‘contingency approach’ because the effectiveness of a manager's leadership is contingent on how they pair their style of leadership with the right setting and alter it to suit the situation.

Who founded it?

The organizational leadership model was developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard. Their research in management and organizational behaviours lead them to develop a ‘life cycle theory of leadership’ during the mid-1970s, a theory they later renamed situational leadership. A ‘life cycle’ because they believed that leadership should not be rigid but should evolve…

Hersey’s and Blanchard’s situational leadership maintains that the most successful leaders are those who change their leadership style and values in relation to the ability and know-how of the individual or group they are endeavouring to manage or influence.

Their situational approach to leadership can be broken down into two main chunks: task-orientated leadership and relationship-orientated leadership. Both these elements of situational leadership have advantages and disadvantages.

Task-orientated leadership: Pros and cons

Task-orientated leadership focuses primarily on task completion.  Task-orientated leaders follow a model of leadership which is less concerned with the workers and more concerned with prioritising the processes and procedures in the company. 

The pros of task-orientated leadership are that it's renowned for its efficiency in completing tasks. 

It can be time and cost-effective since decisions are made quickly and resourcefully. This kind of leadership works well when deadlines are looming. The media and big newspapers are a prime example of task-orientated approaches. In these industries, there's little room for error. With publications being printed daily, there are immense quality expectations and there is certainly no time for delay. Ultimately task-orientated leadership encourages productivity within the organisation.

The cons are this kind of situational leadership risks overlooking the welfare of the workforce. Task-orientated leaders are commonly judged as pressuring or pushy because they stereotypically ignore the personal needs of the team, leaving them feeling undervalued and demoralised.

Task-orientated leadership often doesn’t allow for much creativity or innovation, as it is more interested in precision and meeting tight deadlines, so there is less room for flexibility.

Relationship-orientated leadership evolves depending on the socio-emotional climate of the company. This situational leadership approach focuses on the well-being, motivation and general fulfilment and satisfaction of the workforce.

Relationship- orientated leadership: Pros and cons 

Relationship-orientated leadership often leads to the team feeling more supported and therefore motivated in their endeavours.

Staff feel better able to be creative and innovative in their business approach, as they have more freedom to take risks, challenge themselves in new ways and think outside the box. This type of leadership usually means there is a stronger relationship between employees.

However, since there is often more liberty in relation to time and creativity, this can mean that deadlines are not met on time.

Employees may feel they can exploit the people-focused or responsive nature of their leader. If a relationship-orientated leader tries to accommodate all demands from employees, they risk losing their status as the one controlling task management and procedures.

Allowing staff to take too many risks, no matter how creative or potentially ground-breaking, can be too risky. If the business is unprepared, some errors could be irreversible.

At the other end of the spectrum, leaders who spend too much time focusing on employees can be accused of micro-management. Micro-management is when managers pay extreme attention to the small details and meticulously supervise their staff. These leaders can be terribly high maintenance and have a really detrimental impact on the morale of the workforce.

So, task-orientated leadership is generally more formal, limiting staff development opportunities. However, it's an efficient model, especially as jobs do need to get done!

Relationship-orientated leadership is much more personal and, arguably, likeable. It allows for more creativity and for a stronger bond to form between colleagues and management. However, there is a danger of the leader being overly generous or accommodating in certain situations. 

A good way to figure out which approach is felt most strongly amongst employees is to do a situational leadership questionnaire. Employees can anonymously fill out a survey or questionnaire to help managers understand how their employees feel they are being managed, and if it is a suitable or adapted enough management style to meet their expectations as well as the expectations of the company.

Task-orientated leadership and relationship-orientated leadership can be further broken down into four more individual stages which mark four different behavioural styles of leadership: Directing, Coaching, Supporting and Delegating.

Directing

Directional leadership is characterised by one-way communication. The leader defines the tasks of each individual by outlining the what, how, why, where and when required the business process or transaction.

Coaching

While the leader still provides direction, a coaching leadership model would see the leader more involved in two-way communication. Rather than just giving tasks, the leader participates in active instruction and demonstrations, all the whilst providing socio-emotional support, and thus influencing the development of the individual or group being directed.

Supporting

Supportive leaders share the decision-making process. This kind of leadership is more relationship-based.

Delegating

Here, the leader is still involved in the process, however they distribute certain responsibilities to individuals or groups.

Choosing tasks to delegate can be difficult. There are many questions which the leader should ask themselves when distributing tasks. For example, who is qualified to do this task? Does the task provide an opportunity to grow or develop a particular employee’s skills? Is this a task that will recur frequently in the future? Is it a priority to delegate this task now? 

Likewise, it is also just as important to understand when not to delegate. For example, if the task has not been fully thought out. Leaders should not be too quick to burden employees with premature assignments.

None of the above styles are exhaustive or should be used at all times, but should be approached flexibly and adapted by the leader according to the situation.

How to define the ideal modern leader…

Based on ideas of situational leadership, what are the best qualities in a leader?

Visionary

One of the biggest challenges of being an effective situational leader is developing a situational strategy. There is, unfortunately, no handbook for doing so. The number of potential situations which could arise is infinite, so a good leader must always be forward-thinking and creative in their strategic endeavours.

Dynamism

 The best leaders are able to merge relationship-orientated and task-orientated tactics to meet the demands of the company. A leader should be visionary and dynamic in their approach to match the constant transformations of the modern business world, but they must also be efficient with their time management and be able to take charge.

 

Fluidity

Effective leaders are flexible in their approach to leadership in order to respond appropriately to a constantly evolving working environment. In order to keep up with the rate of progression of the company, and maintain this rate, it is imperative that managers sharpen their ability to determine which styles of leaderships apply to specific scenarios. 

If a leader is able to demonstrate imagination, dynamism and fluidity, they are like to help increase employee motivation, productivity and development levels. Likewise, if a leader wishes to succeed in multiple organisations and differing work cultures, they must be flexible and willing to adapt their approach to the needs of the business and employees. It goes without saying that good leadership plays a major role in employee retention for organisations too.

Situational leadership is an effective model of management in the modern business world. To be a top leader in the industry, you must learn to adapt your leadership style. The trick to succeeding as a leader is to find a balance between directing and delegating and supporting and enhancing the team. A happy medium must be found between meeting staff needs and the requirements of the task.

 

 

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