What is situational leadership?

What is situational leadership?

Some other leadership frameworks sound far cooler than this one, right?




They’re powerful words that play a movie in your mind of how that type of leader will act in different contexts.

But situational?

That’s not a powerful word. It sounds a bit dull. Wishy-washy and non-committal, even.

But go on, read on. Because this framework is more powerful than any of the others.

What is situational leadership?

Situational leadership is the practice of applying different leadership approaches as and when required. So when we say it’s more powerful than any of the others? That’s because it is the others. Well, the best bits of them.

Where one framework falls flat on its face, another will help your team to thrive.

In fact, the only real drawback of this approach is shared by all leadership approaches. To work effectively, it requires the following:

Without those, you’ll struggle to put any effective leadership framework into practice (although… you’d probably struggle less with this one than the others).

When is situational leadership effective?

Always! Look, here are some of the main pitfalls of other leadership styles, and the ones you can substitute in to cover for them:

Democratic leaders involve everyone in every decision. But you better believe that in a crisis situation that requires a quick decision to be made, switching to strategic or even autocratic leadership can save the day.

Strategic leaders are great at identifying a challenging yet achievable goal and mobilising a team towards it. But sometimes, a dash of the radical is required - a moment of visionary leadership can turn that ‘stretch’ goal into an out-there ‘BHAG’ (big, hairy, audacious goal) that just might help your organisation hit the big time.

A coaching leader invests a lot of time and energy into getting to know and supporting the people on their team. This approach isn’t easy if you are also operationally busy, too. A bureaucratic approach to roles, responsibilities and processes can help them to protect enough time to play the coaching role.

In fact, we’ll let you in on a little secret. We think that the highly prized ‘Transformational leadership’ approach is really just a situational blend of the visionary and strategic frameworks.

Pros and cons of situational leadership

  • Pros: highly adaptable, helps support diverse teams, encourages psychological safety.
  • Cons: risks seeming like unfair treatment or favouritism if people feel they are being treated differently to their colleagues. Can also appear inconsistent, especially to other leaders who have a more regimented approach.

Is situational leadership right for me?

This approach requires you to read context, assess the resources available to you and to choose the right approach (and even persona) required to make the best of the situation. If you can think on your feet and have the headspace available to do this, then yes!

There are a few blockers to implementing this strategy comprehensively, such as:

  • Rigid rules and processes from that dictate how you lead, for example in highly dangerous and/or regulated working environments
  • Having to work within rigid organisational frameworks, such as those for leadership, performance management and even innovation
  • Being bogged down in operational work, or having a very large team, meaning less time to devote to getting to know everyone

Even if some or all of these blockers are present, you can still choose two or three frameworks to work from. For example:

  1. Use a bureaucratic approach to managing day-to-day activities
  2. Take on a coaching approach during your performance management duties
  3. Take the role of a visionary leader during creative and strategy workshops

By sticking to this combination, you know what type of approach to use and when, and you can fit the practices into your organisation’s existing frameworks and requirements. It also creates predictability, so your team know what type of leader they’ll see and when.

How does situational leadership compare to other leadership styles?

Well, situational leadership is other leadership styles! Which means that it’s more complex than any of the other frameworks alone, but also more flexible and adaptable.

Take a look at How to lead: 11 leadership styles and frameworks to help you choose the right blend of frameworks for your situational leadership practice.

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