From autocratic to democratic, and transformational to laissez-faire, there are many different approaches to leadership. Business owners and managers generally focus on one, based on their personal philosophy and abilities.
However, the modern business environment often calls for flexibility. With such a diverse set of challenges to overcome, sticking to a rigid, singular leadership style may not be the optimal solution, especially when different situations benefit from such vastly different approaches.
Enter the situational leadership theory.
The Situational Leadership Model
Developed in the 1970s by behavioural scientist Paul Hersey and author Ken Blanchard, situational leadership was first popularised in the duo's 1982 book, Management of Organisational Behaviour.
It is based on the fundamental principle that, since there are many different challenges and situations in business, there can never be one single "best" leadership style for managers to follow.
To support this theory, the model argues that 'followers' (employees or subordinates) have varying maturity and ability levels, ranging from incapable and unwilling, to highly motivated and capable.
Therefore, to become an effective leader, you have to learn to adapt your style based on both the maturity level of your group and the task at hand. Situational leadership dictates four different approaches in this context:
Telling - For less capable groups that require constant motivation and guidance.
Selling - For less competent groups that not at all motivated enough to fulfil the task.
Participating - For highly capable groups that lack motivation for a specific task.
Delegating - For teams that are both extremely capable and highly motivated.
With this in mind, then, what are the advantages and disadvantages of implementing this model in practice?
The Pros and Cons of Situational Leadership
As discussed, situational leadership is about remaining fluid and flexible, and being able to adapt to both your team and the situation at hand.
That doesn't mean it's a foolproof approach, though. Here are just some of the strengths and weaknesses of this leadership style:
Pro: It is Easy to Grasp
The basic tenets of the situational leadership model are quite simple and straightforward. Instead of focusing on too many variables, it asks you to look at two main things: the group you are leading, and the task at hand.
The framework provides four different maturity levels for the classification of your followers, while also outlining the most effective leadership styles for each type of group. Therefore, it is a very pragmatic and transparent approach to people management, as well as a good starting point for inexperienced leaders.
Con: It Asks a Lot of You as a Leader
Success with such a flexible style of leadership hinges entirely on your abilities and qualities as an individual. You need to be able to read other people and judge their needs, emotional status, and social dynamics. Simply put, if you don't have strong people skills, this leadership style will not work.
Your employees can be quite unpredictable (as human beings typically are) and keeping an eye on them all at once can be quite exhausting. Even worse, if you misjudge a situation and use an inappropriate style, it can lead to a very negative outcome.
Pro: It Puts the Focus on Your Employees
The above point can actually be seen as a positive, however. Your followers are at the core of this style of leadership, and, therefore, it requires you to pay closer attention to their strengths, weaknesses, morale, and motivation. The emphasis is on adapting your style to suit your followers.
Along with adapting to the team, a leader is also expected to improve the maturity level of the followers. Improvement of the workplace, including better morale and stronger team relationships, are all possible when leaders pay more attention to the group.
Con: Grading Your Followers is Not Easy
On paper, the situational leadership model has a clear classification of followers into four categories of "maturity." But the real-world application of this model can be quite problematic, primarily because it is not easy to grade everyone into four simplistic groups.
"Maturity" as defined by the model is based on the skill sets, work experience, and motivation levels of your employees, and there are many factors and sub-factors to take into account here. For instance, a motivated and capable employee may lack the experience to do things alone.
Pro: It Promotes Flexibility
Perhaps the biggest strength of this type of leadership is that it recognises a universal truth: human beings are unique individuals. While some may respond to democratic or delegatory styles of leadership, others may not respond positively.
Apart from individuals, each team of followers also has a unique social dynamic. Situational leadership forces you to confront this diversity. Instead of insisting on a single recipe towards success, it asks leaders to be flexible in the way they treat subordinates.
Con: Frequent Shifts in Style Can Create Confusion
Drastic shifts in leadership styles within a short time frame can lead to confusion in the workplace. Going from a hands-on approach in one project to a wholly delegated approach in another may leave some employees not knowing if they are coming or going.
You will need to implement a constant and clear communication source with your team to avoid discord. This in itself, can be a hassle, requiring extra attention from the leader. The time constraints that many leaders face in business make this a potentially unviable style.
Pro: It Improves Overall Productivity
Different followers have varying levels of capabilities and motivation. Since a situational leadership style requires the evaluation of each follower, you have a better chance of maximising their output.
You can switch your approaches to coax the maximum level of productivity out of each individual or team, and, in time, the overall productivity of your team will increase under such a positive leadership style.
Con: It Focuses Too Much on the Short-Term
The situational leadership model is designed for you to pay close attention to the task at hand. It requires your total attention to the team and how they behave in the current situation, which, depending on that situation, is fine.
However, if you are looking to build a defined company culture, this can – for some managers, at least – lead to myopia. If you focus too much on what is directly ahead of you, then you risk neglecting the long-term vision of both your team and your organisation as a whole.
Pro: It Makes You More Attentive and Empathetic
To become successful with situational leadership, you have to pay extra attention to your followers at all times. Individuals can have fluctuations in mood, motivation, and morale. However, an excellent situational leader can gauge the mood of his or her followers and change styles to boost productivity, even in times of adversity.
When a leader pays more attention to the emotional status of employees, this also boosts the level of trust within the organisation. As a result, leaders with higher levels of empathy can motivate their followers more effectively.
There is no doubt that situational leadership is a very popular form of management due to its largely inclusive and flexible approach. But if you plan to adopt this model, you have to be mindful of the significant demands it places on the leader. High empathy, emotional intelligence, and attention to detail are mandatory for the success of this leadership style.
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