A Situational Approach to Leadership, With Examples

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A Situational Approach to Leadership, With Examples
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A Situational Approach to Leadership, With Examples

Leading a team can so easily become a hot mess. Some people say you micromanage, while others think you’re too hands off. Oftentimes, leaders constantly do other people’s work for them, and answer basic questions to employees who should know better. The workday becomes more like running a daycare. And to top it off, people don’t even produce what you’re asking for.

It’s enough to throw in the towel. Or at the very least, to search out and find another way.

If you’ve already researched various leadership theories, you may be wary of trying a new technique or believing there’s really a fool-proof leadership style.

Situational leadership isn’t about having lots of charisma or charm, or giving idealistic and rousing speeches. It’s a method that strategically applies various leadership styles to different scenarios. The key to situational leadership is empowering others. It starts with a mindset, and then with a few principles and techniques, it’s possible to turn a team around. People are motivated, productive, and happy with their work environment.

Interested in how it works? In this post, we’re going to define situational leadership and explain the advantages of this leadership style. Then, using examples, we’ll explore how to apply the method to a workplace.

What Is Situational Leadership

What Is Situational Leadership?

Situational leadership became popular back in the 1970s. It developed out of research in leadership theory at Ohio State University. Situational leadership doesn’t promote a one-style approach to leadership. Rather, it poses that effective leadership pivots and models itself to suit a particular task and team.

Situational leadership continues to be a popular approach for managers today. Coaches and executives swear by the method, and dozens of books have been written to promote it. Organizations such as Ken Blanchard’s SLII provide training and award certifications in the method, and millions have passed through these programs.

The Mindset

Above anything else, situational leadership is a state of mind. It’s fundamentally about being a servant leader, which is a leadership style that’s not ego-driven or self-focused. When leaders evaluate a situation exclusively from their own point of view, they fail to communicate goals coherently to the team. This approach unfailingly leads to frustration and re-work.

Servant leadership, rather, seeks to empower others. It appreciates that at the end of the day, people remember not what you say or how much you know, but how you make them feel. It is founded on skills such as self-awareness (understanding how you come across to others), careful listening, and transparency.

Situational leaders approach management through this mindset. They identify the needs of the team within a specific scenario, and take action to meet those needs. In the same way that a toolbox consists of several tools to use for various situations, a situational leader develops multiple leadership skills, and knows when to apply each.

The 3 Skills of a Situational Leader

Situational leadership utilizes three skills.

1. Set Goals

While it’s common these days to fall back on the SMART goal method, a situational leader does so delicately. Goals are presented to the team with nuance, and the leader makes sure that each member understands his or her contribution toward achieving milestones.

2. Diagnose

With a specific goal in mind, the next step for the leader is to identify where each individual is at with relation to the task at hand. Is this the first time someone has performed a certain task, or is she an old hand at it? In light of her other commitments, is the goal achievable within a week, a quarter, or another time frame? This personal level of understanding is achieved through 1:1 communication.

Once a leader understands the personal situation of each individual, it’s possible to diagnose the situation, and know which leadership style to apply. We’ll discuss these leadership styles in greater detail in the next section.

3. Match

And the final skill is to get the tools to the team. Whether it’s ensuring the software is up to date, the necessary materials have been ordered, or something else, this skill is all about enabling the person to perform their assigned task.

With this brief definition, let’s look into the four leadership styles that a situational leader adopts.

The 4 Types of Situational Leadership

The 4 Types of Situational Leadership

It’s so common for someone to ask what style of management you prefer, like it’s a matter of personal taste. Situational leadership, however, isn’t about picking one style at the exclusion of others. Rather, it pivots between different styles to suit particular situations. Let’s look at the four distinct leadership styles that situational leaders move in and out of while leading a team.

1. Direct

The aim of direction is to coach for understanding. When someone is brand new to the task, this style provides him with step-by-step instructions for getting the job done. It’s similar to following a recipe while baking.

Leaders often avoid the directing approach because it can seem like dictating or micromanaging. However, in certain contexts, it is both necessary and appreciated. Without strong direction, a newbie would be totally lost.

2. Coach

When someone is still somewhat new to a role, frustrations may well arise. Some skills take time to develop, and to the employee, this ineptitude looks like failure.

The coaching mode aims to both develop understanding of tasks and address frustrations. This leadership approach assuages the frustration, gives support, and continues to provide step-by-step instructions in how to get the job done.

3. Support

The support style is applied to employees who are fairly adept at their role, and its primary function is to provide a second ear and a coach for decision making.

This method looks fairly hands-off, and as it turns out, this is the management style that most people prefer to work under. Once someone has become proficient in her job, she prefers support without heavy handed guidance and coaching.

4. Delegate

This final leadership style aims at improvement and results. At this stage, the employee knows what he is doing, and really just needs the leader to get out of the way. The leader’s role, when an employee reaches this skill level, is to encourage them to level up. Perhaps this means developing a new skill set or taking on additional clients.

And this summarizes the four central styles of a situational leader. As you can see, a situational leader assumes a variety of modes. They may hold your hand during a big change, encourage you through a rough patch, then push you to up your game and advance your skill set. Whatever the mode a leader adopts, the ultimate objective is to empower individuals and guide them to a place where they require little to no supervision. As it turns out, this flexible approach benefits teams and workplaces culture in many ways. Let’s explore some of these advantages.

The Advantages of Situational Leadership

The Advantages of Situational Leadership

With all of the leadership theories and styles out there, why would a leader choose to adopt the situational leadership method? Let’s explore four key advantages the method provides.

1. Increased Motivation & Autonomy

Situational leadership meets people where they are at, and addresses the needs of each individual. This personalized approach enables individuals to quickly progress from a state of high-dependence to one of self-reliance. It also cultivates personal volition. People are more motivated to work for a leader who addresses their needs.

2. Provides a Common Language

Business jargon so often leads to miscommunication. An exchange or presentation that incorporates too many words like “pivot,” “immersive,” “agile” and “transform” sounds like word salad. People tune out and the manager’s efforts to communicate falls flat.

Situational leadership, however, creates a more steady line of communication. The method consistently uses the same three skills, and so both the team and the leader learn to communicate in terms of goals and needs.

3. Increases Connection in the Workplace

Community is at the heart of company culture. And with all our remote technology, so often a sense of community breaks down. We’re wired to have face-to-face conversations, and so when we’re instead texting, sending emails and watching videos from co-workers all day long, the workplace culture declines.

Situational leadership, however, is practiced through daily, face-to-face conversations. Through getting to know people, a leader is able to diagnose a work scenario. And this high level of communication in turn creates more connection within a work culture.

4. Builds Self-Reliance

It’s easy for employees to develop highly dependent relationships with their managers. If a manager drops everything to address a concern or answer a question, he becomes the go-to problem solver.

Situational leadership, however, works toward autonomy. It coaches and supports and guides an employee to a place where he or she works independently with little to no instruction.

These benefits make it clear why a leader would choose the situational leadership approach. Now look at some examples of what situational leadership looks like in the workplace.

Situational Leadership Examples

Situational Leadership Examples

The following examples demonstrate how to apply situational leadership to a workplace environment.


A situational leader is agile, and ready at any point to shift his style and approach. For example, a situational leader may believe that everyone on the team is inexperienced with a certain task, and plan to either coach or direct them through it. However, upon speaking to the team, he may gather that everyone actually is well-versed in the task at hand. At this point, the leader pivots to either support or delegate the team.


Ineffective leaders provide vague mushy goals, and more often than not after the team produces something, responds by saying, “This isn’t what I expected.”

A situational leader, on the other hand, brings empathy to the role. She considers what the goal looks like from the perspective of the employee. Maybe the goal is to double sales in the final quarter. A situational leader considers those actions that the employee needs to take in order to achieve this objective, and clearly communicates what success looks like for each individual.


A manager always has a lot of balls in the air. In the interest of saving time, it’s easy for him to get into the habit of answering employee questions or completing small tasks on behalf of employees. Over time, however, these dependent relationships tax the manager’s time.

A situational leader, rather, coaches employees to solve problems themselves. Once the employee understands the key information and duties of a role, the leadership style shifts to one of mentorship and support. This cultivates a motivated and self-sufficient team that runs all on its own even when the leader steps away for a time.

1:1 Conversations

A situational leader understands where all her employees stand. If something doesn’t go quite right, it doesn’t take long to dig down and figure out why. Perhaps it’s due to a lack of experience, perhaps to overwork, or perhaps the right tools weren’t available. The leader determines the cause right away.

This familiarity with the team and work processes is only possible through daily, 1:1 conversations. It’s key to applying the situational leadership method. When a leader lacks familiarity with employees, managing means guesswork and snafus galore.


One of the most common things for employees to do at the end of the workday is vent and gush about their managers. Their gripes vary depending on their skill level and familiarity with the role. A newbie might complain that nothing is ever explained to her. While an old hand might complain of micro managing.

Whether you like it or not, as a leader you’re going to be the topic of many dinner table conversations. You have a huge impact on the lives of everyone who works for you. Situational leadership keeps this banter appreciative. It ensures that your impact is positive.

Situational leadership is a method that strategically applies various leadership styles. It’s a pivoting, matching approach that adjusts based on the needs of individuals and teams. The end goal is to empower, enable and motivate the team.

It is a great approach because it allows a leader to manage a diverse team with a range of skill and experience, and keep everybody happy, motivated and productive.

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