The Situational Leader part one: From Democrat to Autocrat and back again

A few weeks ago I wrote an article about different leadership styles, with the common response being that situational leadership is the way to go—that the astute manager understands the importance of leading according to circumstance and the employee in question.

I agree. People are different and require/respond to different leadership approaches. However, I disagree with the implication that servant leadership and situational leadership are opposing leadership styles. They aren’t. In fact, servant leaders are situational leaders!

And that’s why it’s good to familiarize yourself (as commenter Peggy Nix suggested) with the Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory (and yes, that would be the same Blanchard who’s a vocal advocate of servant leadership), as well as consider under what circumstances a shift in leadership “style” might be warranted.

What is situational leadership?

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According to Hersey and Blanchard, there are four types of leadership style: telling, selling, participating, and delegating and four employee maturity levels: low, medium (low skill), medium (more skills but lacking confidence), and high.

The higher the employee’s maturity, the more the manager needs to get away from telling him what to do and how to do it.

And speaking of maturity, situational leadership requires a manager to have some, which is probably why so few are good at it (sigh) and instead find themselves relating to every employee in the same way regardless of the employee’s skill. It doesn’t work, but that doesn’t seem to matter.

Oh well. For those who are capable of being good at situational leadership, read on, please.

From democrat (participating) to autocrat (telling)

I’m of the opinion (even without proof) that every leader has a preferred way of managing according to his temperament and worldview.

And so, it may pain a leader who’d rather include her team in decision making, for example, to have to “get all bossy” with an employee who can’t seem to get it together, but if it’s necessary, it’s necessary, and a manager who won’t do it isn’t performing her job very well.

Why else might a democratic boss have to take an autocratic stance? It could be that:

  • The employee is brand new and in the orientation phase of the job – A new employee needs to learn the job and his boss’ expectations for performing it. Regardless of the employee’s maturity level, a little instruction would be helpful here.
  • The employee is in trouble – When an employee is struggling, it’s up to the manager to intervene. Note that “intervention” does not mean doing the job. (If I had a nickel for every manager who decided it was easier to do the job than provide guidance while holding his employee accountable for doing the job…)
  • The employee has a serious attitude problem – When the employee is able to do the job but is displaying an unwillingness to do it, it’s time to get real specific (and then document that you’re doing so).
  • The project can’t fail – If the project is highly visible and high-risk, it makes sense to oversee the key details. Don’t go overboard, though.
  • You’re the new boss – If you’ve been assigned the new leader of the team, then you need to learn, STAT, who does what and who’s good at what. During this phase of your own development, you may need to get all up in your employees’ grills while you figure things out. Do everyone a favor, though. Let them know why you’re behaving this way, and assure them it’s temporary and that soon you’ll be back to your democratic-loving self.

Managing is a continuous learning process, and the first step is for the manager to know himself. That way, when a shift is necessary, he or she can make the change mindfully and with a clear goal in view.

Stay tuned for Part II!




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1 Comment on "The Situational Leader part one: From Democrat to Autocrat and back again"

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Karen Nolton-Cox

Enjoyed the article