Situational Leadership

Years ago, I’ve read Ken Blanchard’s books “The One Minute Manager” and “Leadership and The One Minute Manager”. Among other things, those books describe a situational approach to leadership. As a leader, you first have to understand a person’s development level for a specific task or goal in order to apply the right leadership style and provide the right amount of directive and/or supportive behaviour.

Let’s first try to understand the development level of a person: “You need to look at two factors to determine a person’s development level: competence and commitment. In other words, anytime a person is not performing well without your direction, it is usually a competence problem, a commitment problem, or both” (on page 35 in “Leadership and The One Minute Manager”).

  • Competence is a function of demonstrated knowledge and skills; can be gained through learning and/or experience, can be developed with direction and support
  • Commitment is a combination of confidence and motivation; confidence is a measure of a person’s self-assuredness, a feeling of being able to do a task well without much direction; motivation is a person’s interest in and enthusiasm for doing a task well

Four combinations of competence and commitment make up the four development levels:

Development Levels and Leadership Styles Stages
  • Development Level 1 / Enthusiastic Beginner: you have a new task or challenge and you want to get it solved (high commitment), however you are inexperienced (low competence). You don’t know what you don’t know. You are eager to learn, excited and curious, and fairly confident that learning won’t be difficult.
  • Development Level 2 / Disillusioned Learner: you have acquired some competence, but haven’t made as much progress as expected. Your commitment may have dropped because it was harder than you thought or because you feel your efforts and progress weren’t being acknowledged. You could become frustrated and may even be ready to abandon the task or goal (low commitment).
  • Development Level 3 / Capable but Cautious Contributor: you have demonstrated some competence, but lack confidence in doing the task by yourself. You may be self-critical and unsure. Or you may be bored with a particular goal or task and lose commitment that way.
  • Development Level 4 / Self-Reliant Achiever: you have both high competence and commitment, you are confident and self-motivated. You need to be valued for your contributions. You need opportunities for growth and influence (but you don’t need much direction or support).

The development level of a person is goal – or task – specific. It’s not an overall rating of a  person’s skills or attitude. And each development level asks for a different leadership style as depicted:

Development Levels and Leadership styles Graph
  • Leadership Style 1: Directing for the Enthusiastic Beginner
    As a situational leader, you provide a D1 person with high directive behaviour and low supportive behaviour, i.e. you provide specific direction about goals, you show and tell a person what, when, where, and how to do something, and then you closely monitor the person’s performance in order to provide frequent feedback on results. If there are decisions, you take them.
  • Leadership Style 2: Coaching for the Disillusioned Learner
    As a situational leader, you provide a D2 person with high directive behaviour and high supportive behaviour, i.e. you continue to direct goal or task accomplishment but you also explain why, you solicit suggestions, and begin to encourage involvement in decision making. Still, you are the one to decide. Once a person has lost commitment, providing direction is not enough, you also have to provide support and encouragement.
  • Leadership Style 3: Supporting for the Capable but Cautious Contributor
    As a situational leader, you provide a D3 person with low directive behaviour and high supportive behaviour, i.e. you facilitate, listen, encourage, and support. You make decisions together. You support the person’s efforts, listen to the suggestions, and ask good questions to build his/her confidence in his/her competence.
  • Leadership Style 4: Delegating for the Self-Reliant Achiever
    As a situational leader, you provide a D4 person with low directive behaviour and low supportive behaviour, i.e. D4 makes most decisions about what, how, and when. You value the person’s contributions and support his/her growth.

The Situational Leadership Model, developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, matches quite well with my experience. With a good understanding of it, it’s easier to be an effective leader.

Let me recap a few situations that we regularly had within Catalysts (and still have within Cloudflight):

  • An onboarding coach will mostly apply the directing and coaching leadership style when she helps a new team member during the first couple of weeks.
  • When a team leader coaches a candidate team leader, she will guide the candidate team leader through all development levels up to the delegating leadership style. Once that is reached, the team leader can hand over the project to the candidate team leader.
  • A team leader will also have to distinguish between his/her team members, since typically they are not all on the same development level – some are junior, some are senior, so the team leader must be directing or coaching for some, yet supporting and delegating for others. It should rather be clear to every team member at which development level everybody is, otherwise the different behaviours of the team leader towards his/her team members would be irritating.
  • Senior team leaders will demonstrate supporting behaviour towards not-so-experienced team leaders.
  • A company leader will be supporting and delegating for his/her senior team leaders to achieve their goals.

It’s good to understand and acknowledge that we are not all the same, not all the time, not for all tasks. The better we understand the specific needs of the other person with respect to direction and support, the better we will be able to provide each other with the best matching leadership style. So situational leadership fuels our progress on the road to mastery and autonomy.

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