The Situational Leader, part two: from Autocrat to Servant

In Part I of two articles about situational leadership, we explored the basics of the Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory as well as some common circumstances under which a manager might find herself shifting from her preferred leadership style to another style more in tune with her employee’s maturity level. Our specific example involved a democratic (participating) leader morphing into autocrat mode.

In this article (Part II), we’ll look at why an autocratic manager might be motivated to lead in a more servant style.

But first, an overview:

Autocratic (telling) leadership style – the manager tells the employee what to do and how to do it.

Servant leadership style – the manager leads collaboratively while viewing employees as partners. Servant leaders consider themselves stewards, responsible for the development of employees in their care.

And as a reminder, the other three types of leadership are selling, participating, and delegating.

Autocrat (telling) to servant (selling/participating/delegating)

  1. Case Study: Barbara
    Bossy Barbara had a big problem. She and her new manager, Assertive Alice, weren’t getting along too well. Truth be told, Barbara would fire Alice if she could, but she couldn’t. Alice was the third Customer Service Manager Barbara had hired in the last 15 months (of the previous two, one had been fired, and the other had quit), and the disruption in leadership was beginning to noticeably affect sales, customer relations, and office morale. Plus, Barbara had to keep stepping in as interim Manager, and honestly, she wasn’t very good at it. The details of the day to day escaped her, and stuff was continually falling through the cracks.

    And on top of all that, Barbara’s boss had made it very clear that Alice needed to work out. Alice had a great background, she’d come highly recommended, her staff had taken a liking to her right away, and the other managers thought well of her, too.

    Barbara, on the other hand, had a terrible reputation but had been protected for years by the CEO, now recently retired.

    It irked Barbara to no end that Alice asked so many questions and wouldn’t follow directives automatically, but Barbara was coming to see that she needed to find a new way to approach Alice, or she might lose her own job.

    Slowly and reluctantly, then, Barbara began asking for Alice’s input and proactively meeting Alice’s desire for information. She also began responding more positively to Alice’s calm confrontation whenever Barbara made a decision about Alice’s team without consulting Alice.

    Eventually, the relationship improved such that while still far from perfect, it was at least workable.

  2. Case Study: Brad
    Brad had had no idea managing would be this tough. When he’d been offered the promotion to Director, he’d been flattered by the attention and real happy about the money, but managing his former buddies had turned out to be a lot more challenging than he’d anticipated.

    For example, whenever Brad gave an instruction, he didn’t know whether he’d be ignored or met with thinly veiled hostility. And maybe Brad was imaging things, but it seemed the guys were going out of their way to avoid any conversation with him except talk about work.

    All in all, Brad was finding it harder and harder to ignore the tension. Fed up and perplexed, Brad requested a meeting with one of the team members he’d known the longest and trusted the most. What am I doing wrong, Brad wanted to know? What he heard surprised the heck out of him.

    Brad learned his new staff members perceived him as a condescending know-it-all who actually didn’t know half of what he thought he did. The guys resented Brad’s attitude as well as his easy dismissal of their knowledge and abilities. Worse, Brad often gave instructions that impeded productivity, but apparently he was all but clueless about that fact.

    At first, Brad resisted believing his employee. Eventually, however, after enough conversation (and some specific examples), he had to admit the truth. And it stung, because he hadn’t intended to come across as obnoxious, and he certainly hadn’t intended to alienate his team. It was time to do something different.

    The next day, Brad called a meeting with the team, apologized for his past behavior, and asked if they couldn’t all start over again.

    Brad’s metamorphosis from “teller” to  “delegator” didn’t happen overnight, and at times he stumbled.

    Brad was committed to the process, however, and eventually he grew into a fine manager his staff could admire, follow, and appreciate.

For sure, autocratic (telling) leadership has its place (the military, law enforcement, and firefighters come to mind), but there’s also a time to put that aside and try something new.

Can you think of a time when a manager you knew (or maybe you??) needed to adopt a new leadership style to be more effective?



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