Four Styles of Situational Leadership

Essentials of Leadership

Where in your life are you in a position of Leadership? Whether you are a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a mid-level manager, a small business owner, a sports team captain, a teacher, or a parent; we are all leaders in some aspect of our lives. Even if no leadership position comes to mind, you are still a leader to yourself in your own life. Because we are all leaders, taking the time to learn the principles of effective leadership styles can be profoundly beneficial in both our professional and personal lives. 

Marshall Goldsmith, world-renowned business coach and #1 Wall Street Journal and New York Times Best-Selling author, asserts that effective leaders need to adapt their leadership style to fit the performance readiness of their followers; a concept known as situational leadership. If you lead a team of business analysts the same way as a class of kindergarteners you will either arouse feelings of resentment and humiliation from your coworkers and employees or be greeted with blank stares from a room of confused six-year olds. 

Even a single person needs to be led using different leadership styles in different situations. Followers have varying levels of motivation, knowledge, and skills for different tasks.  Effective leaders should stay highly attuned to their environment and acknowledge that situations change constantly. They therefore require constant fine-tuning in their leadership styles.

Through observation and trial and error, the best leaders develop an instinct for what leadership style should be applied in what situation. The least effective leaders never understand it.

The 4 Styles of Situational Leadership

Marshall Goldsmith has popularized 4 main styles of leadership that are uniquely effective when used with different followers. They are as follows:

1) Directing

This leadership style is mostly a one-way street with little input from the follower or employee. This should be used when one needs detailed guidance on a specific task. Take them through, step-by-step, what needs to get done, how it should be done, and when it needs to be completed.

2) Coaching

This leadership style is more effective when your followers need a lot of guidance but are highly motivated. In other words, this is primarily for people who want and need to learn. The leader might say, “Here’s what I’d like you to do. What do you think?”

3) Supporting

This is for followers with the skills to complete the task but who may lack the confidence to do it on their own. This style features below-average amounts of direction. You might hear your leader say, “Here’s the task. How do you think it should be done? Let’s talk about it. How can I help you on this one?”

4) Delegating

This leadership style is ideal for followers and employees who score high in motivation, ability, and confidence. These types of people know what to do, how to do it and can do it independently. For example, the leader might delegate an assignment and say,  “If I can help, just ask. If not, you’re on your own.”

Advice for Followers

If you are in a follower position, it is still important to openly and honestly examine your own knowledge, skills, and motivation for a specific task. This will not only inspire growth through self-knowledge but will also help you understand what you need from your leader. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. If you don’t know how to do a specific task, don’t be afraid to ask for detailed guidance. If you are skilled and motivated, don’t be afraid to ask for more freedom. This will help both you and your leader in the long run.

Self-Leadership

You can also apply the notion of situational leadership to yourself in your own life. Much as leaders try to guide and direct the actions of followers, we try to guide and direct the actions of ourselves. Within each of us there is a planner (leader) and a doer (follower). For example, each time you plan out your to-do list for the day, you are assuming a leadership role in your own life. Each time you accomplish tasks on that to-do list, you are assuming a follower role.  Effective self-leadership employs the same strategies as effectively leading others.

Unfortunately, we tend to be superior planners and inferior doers. It’s a rare occurrence for most of us to complete everything we set out to do. However, by accurately assessing our needs for a specific task, we are able to adjust our self-leadership style accordingly.

We start the day with the best intentions and a plan in mind. However, as the day progresses, we get distracted, lose motivation, lose energy, and run into problems that prevent us from completing our tasks. In other words, we face the same problems that our followers do when we are in a leadership role. 

Just as an effective leader should dynamically adjust their leadership style depending on the situation, so should you with yourself. Some tasks require very little oversight and direction, and we can assume our doer self will complete them. These are often habitual activities or activities we really enjoy doing and are motivated to complete. However, for tasks you have little motivation to do or are unskilled at doing, more stringent direction and planning are required. To help better understand this, let’s look at the task of going for a morning run that would require two very different self-leadership styles for two different people.

John loves going for a run in the morning before work and floating on that runners high and feeling of accomplishment throughout the day. This is usually the highlight of his day and he has gone for a morning run 6 mornings per week for several years. John has deeply ingrained habits around his morning routine and sincerely enjoys it. He can approach this task with a hands-off delegating leadership style. Running will happen and John doesn’t need to worry about it.

Jane, on the other hand, would like to build up a morning jogging routine, but running for 20 minutes meets her standards for cruel and unusual punishment. She has tried running once in the past year and thought it was a miserable experience, but now she really wants to get in shape and give running another chance. If left to her own devices, Jane knows that she’ll just hit snooze until it’s time for work. Therefore, she needs to approach this task with a more stringent and dictiorial directing leadership role and plans accordingly by doing the following:

  1. Goes to sleep in her running clothes.
  2. Places her running shoes by the door.
  3. Sets her phone alarm and places it on the other size of her bedroom to force herself to get out of bed to turn it off.
  4. Plans out a running route and gives herself ample time to complete it.
  5. Creates a motivating workout playlist of her favorite songs.

In the above plan, Jane anticipates the needs of her inexperienced and unmotivated doer self on this task and accounts for them in her leadership strategy. 

The principles of situational leadership can be applied whether you are leading a country, a company, a team, a family, or yourself. If you are interested in learning from an established pioneer in the field of situational leadership and behavioral change and going into depth on these topics, Marshall Goldsmith’s course on Methods of Behavioral Change will be a valuable resource for you.