6 Examples of Situational Leadership in Action

Serious old woman leader coaching young workers and explaining some  paperwork

Modern businesses are complex organisations composed of different teams from different backgrounds. Dealing with these diverse groups sometimes means switching up your leadership approach with employees of various skill levels. 

That is why so many business leaders are embracing situational leadership as a management style. Situational leadership takes some of the approaches we are familiar with, such as authoritative or delegative, and then identifies the groups with which those styles will find the most success. 

All of this may sound a little complex, but to help clear things up, we have put together six examples of situational leadership to illustrate how this strategy works in the real world. 

What Is Situational Leadership?

In 1969, Ken Blanchard and Paul Hershey’s Management of Organizational Behavior established the adaptive leadership tenets that would become known as situational leadership. The core concept of this book was that no one style of leadership was always correct. 

Instead, the book argued that assessing the leader’s personal characteristics alongside the capabilities of the team was essential. While there is some intricate classification used by Blanchard and Hershey to determine when different styles were most appropriate, it comes down to leaders choosing between four basic management styles. These are:

Telling: The most autocratic of the styles, this works best when a manager needs to get the best results from a group with a lesser skill set. Commonly seen in military situations, telling helps leaders with more experience to manage new team members.

Selling: This style of management puts the leader in more of a coaching role rather than a directing one. The leader’s job is to make sure tasks go to those best suited to the job while providing advice and experience. Sports organisations commonly use this style.

Participating: A democratic approach to management, this style is best for teams with high skill sets. Here the leader provides more feedback than guidance. Teams of junior managers may need this type of leadership more than others.

Delegating: As the most hands-off of the four styles, delegating fits subordinates with high skill levels. Here the leader oversees while making sure things go according to plan. This approach is ideal when working with senior staff.

With some idea of how situational leadership works, let’s view some examples of how real-time leaders have used these strategies in the past.

Examples of Situational Leadership

1) Steve Jobs

Apple owes its massive success to the influence of its most famous leader, Steve Jobs. While most people associate Jobs with the authoritative telling leadership style, his approach was actually much more nuanced than many realise.

Jobs’ famous product launches were not only a way to get consumers excited about new products. The launches were also a method for Jobs to sell his vision to employees. Jobs had a unique way of motivating teams to pursue ideas that were unpopular internally, despite the massive success they would eventually meet.

He was also capable of using a delegative approach to leadership. Jobs wanted to hire the best people in areas he was not necessarily familiar with. He did this with the hope that they would be able to create success even without his direct intervention, as with his massive success in founding the Pixar movie studio.

2) Colin Powell

The former United States Secretary of State and four-star general had an exceptional career in which he interacted with a vast variety of leaders including Richard Nixon and Mikhail Gorbachev. Throughout that career, he worked with a wide variety of teams, from units of soldiers to teams of statesmen.

In an interview with Forbes, Colin Powell stated that situational leadership was the key to managing different teams. He elaborated, saying ‘I adjust my style, within limits, to the strengths and weaknesses of my subordinates so that I understand what they can and can’t do.’ 

Powell knew the importance of identifying weaknesses and taking advantage of individual strengths to help teams find success no matter what the environment. Throughout his career he did this with lives on the line, making decisions whose consequences echoed across the world.

3) Phil Jackson

As the most successful coach in NBA history, Phil Jackson has won 11 championships. The successful teams he led included international superstars including Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant. 

When dealing with high-level talent, a different leadership approach gives team members the latitude they need while still making the decisions that drive success. To do this, Jackson needed to be supportive of players while still giving them clear direction.

Jackson’s situational leadership skills are evident when looking at his approach to coaching some of his greatest stars. Michael Jordan is known to be a hardworking, dedicated team member, meaning that Jackson took a delegative leadership approach with him. However, Shaquille O’Neal was already an established star with a middling commitment to his team when he joined the Lakers, meaning that a participatory management approach was more appropriate.

4) George Patton

As one of the most famous leaders of the Second World War, General George Patton has become an almost mythical figure. Popular culture imagines him as a hard-line leader, relentlessly pushing his troops forward towards victory.

However, this idea is not entirely accurate. Patton was not only a successful military leader but an excellent analyst who produced several essays on war strategy and leadership. The most important idea which derived from these papers, and one that would form a foundation of military readiness in the coming decades, was that to win a conflict an organisation must always analyse a situation and adapt.

Patton applied this approach to his leadership style, embodying many of the most important principles of situational leadership. Some of his most important pieces of advice were to use cooperation and collaboration to lead a team, earn the teams trust by positive motivation and to always be flexible with different groups.

5) John Wooden

Another excellent example of the value of situational leadership comes again from the sports world. This time, the arena is college-level basketball. During his time as head coach of UCLA, John Wooden won ten championships. Seven of those championships were consecutive, the longest winning streak in NCAA history.

One of the challenges of coaching a team at the college level, as opposed to the professional level, is that the team is constantly changing. Year to year, key players left, and reassessment of both tactical and leadership strategies becomes necessary. 

To lead his team at the high level of success that Wooden achieved, he needed to constantly evaluate how his team worked together. He identified not only the most successful players but also how the weaker ones needed his support. This leadership, and the success it brought the team, was only possible through a situational approach.

6) Jack Stahl

As the president of Coca-Cola from 1978 to 2000, Jack Stahl was tasked with leading a successful organisation and ensuring that it stayed at the top. In an interview discussing his leadership priorities, Stahl said that he viewed the best leaders as situational, able to approach a circumstance and determine the level of involvement needed from them.

Stahl says that he learned this from an issue that occurred early in his career. Asked to prepare a prospectus for a public offering, Stahl delegated the project without correctly determining the amount of oversight needed. The project failed, and Stahl realised that he needed to know when to dive in and lead.

This sort of active situational leadership is important for leading different teams in the best ways possible. By engaging with teams, individuals, and departments, you can develop a managerial approach that works best for each group and elevates the business.


The new global economy and the diverse workforce that comes along with it means that organisational requirements are different in every environment. Developing the ability to modify your leadership approach to specific challenges is an important strength in today’s complex business world.

Do you have experience with using situational leadership in your organisation? Let us know in the comments section below!