What You Need to Know About “Situational Leadership!"

What You Need to Know About “Situational Leadership!”

9.8 min read

Greg L. Thomas

One Leader’s Perspective…

If you study the subject of leadership at one of our fine educational institutions or read many books on the subject of leadership, you will eventually come across the term “contingency theory” or situational leadership. In the past, most researchers believed in a “one best way” or universal approach to leadership.

Many also held the opinion that leaders were those who simply had the “right stuff” to lead others. This right stuff was defined as commitment, strength, vision and often charisma. Of course, one hundred years ago many assumed that great leaders were simply “born” to lead and the “right stuff” was unavailable to others! Within the past 40 years, two avid supporters of the best way theory or universal leadership approach have been Robert Blake and Jane Moulton. Their books, training programs and articles have taught that a single leadership style is the right approach for all situations.

Blake and Moulton created a two-dimensional “managerial grid” that has become a classic way to diagram the best way or universal approach model. This grid diagrams two basic dimensions of an effective leader. They are the concern for results (task) and concern for people. This managerial grid model has a numerical rating for each cell depending on the degree or amount of concern a manager demonstrates for results and for people. These two “concerns” are considered to be independent of each other. The ideal is considered a 9.9-oriented manager who integrates a high concern for both the task and people to produce outstanding performance. Apparently, unlike physical beauty or gymnastic skill, leadership is incapable of achieving a perfect 10! The original grid concept appeared in 1961 and has been modified into the 1990’s. In a survey performed by the National Industrial Conference Board, this grid was mentioned as one of the most frequently identified behavioral science approaches to management.

However, as other researchers studied farther, a different model was developed that viewed good leadership as contingent upon the given situation or environment. The best way or universal model was criticized by those who recognized that good leadership often adapts with the situation. Widely varying circumstances typically require different qualities of leadership. These became known as contingency theories. Two respected researchers by the names of Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard established a contingency theory known as situational leadership. They also created a managerial grid similar to Blake and Molton, since two of its dimensions also included results (tasks) and people.

Paul Hersey then merged the relationship between behavior tasks and people into a four-cell chart that reveals four distinct leadership styles… directing (telling)… coaching (selling)…supporting (participating) and delegating. Hersey and Blanchard believe a manager may effectively use any of the four styles depending on the “readiness level” or “maturity” of the subordinates (Hersey, 1984). For example, a manager whose subordinates are unable and unwilling to do a good job would demonstrate leadership by directing (telling) them what and how to do the task. So according to this theory when the leader is demonstrating a directing (telling) leadership style, they are providing high direction and low support.

However, this contingency theory has also been under assault by researchers. Continued studies have cast doubts on its validity. As Bolman and Deal point out, “If, for example, managers give unwilling and unable subordinates high direction and low support, what would cause their motivation to improve?” Other problems with this theory include no task structure variables. Also, the concept of follower “maturity” is not well defined and is therefore open to interpretation. Many other contingency theories have arisen and all have supporters and detractors about either the relevance or quality of research associated with them. Leadership thinker James O’Toole opines, “Yet, evidence mounts that contingency, or situational, leadership is ineffective. All around we see the signs of failure: the depressing social and organizational indicators that point to the inability of leaders to bring about constructive change.” So the debate continues regarding the “best way theory” and various “contingency” theories. There is also presently a global leadership (GLOBE) project in progress since 1993. It involves a sampling of over 15,000 leaders from 779 organizations in 62 various cultures from around the globe. It enlists the help of 170 co-investigators to help in the research. The goal of the project is to find out what really makes for effective leadership.

It is for these reasons that Bolman and Deal offer yet a different approach to leadership they call reframing leadership. They offer four images of leadership that include structural, human resource, political and symbolic viewpoints. Each of these images potentially extend effective or ineffective leadership styles! They believe that “each of the frames offers a distinctive image of the leadership process. Depending on leader and circumstance, each can lead to compelling and constructive leadership, but none is right for all times and seasons.”

So what is the conclusion? Is there a universal or one best way approach to leadership? Or is the best approach contingent upon the present situation? I am afraid that like most areas of leadership research, this subject will be open to debate and confusion for some time to come. This is just one example of why many people find the subject of leadership a complex and perplexing study. Sometimes it is hard to get most researchers to agree to a definition of what “leadership” actually is! But we should not allow the confusion and inconclusive research to frustrate us in our attempt to practice it in our daily lives.

Regarding the “one best way” or universal theory verses the contingency theories; we need to understand a basic truth. Yes, leadership does require different approaches and methods for different situations. We must resist the temptation to view leadership in a narrow and oversimplified way. Allow me to provide some examples. A leader may need to use a different set of skills to motivate individuals who have “tenure” or are protected by a union in contrast to temporary or part time employees. Often leaders may use different traits when working in the private sector when compared to the public sector. The leadership skills needed to motivate followers who are unskilled and alienated are different than for a group who are highly skilled and deeply motivated. Because of cultural differences, the role of police chief may require different leadership skills in the United States than in China. Exhibiting leadership to a group of executives is often different than leading the mailroom staff. Recently I had a conversation with a prominent social advocate and political leader in the state of New Jersey. She told me one of the most difficult tasks she has ever encountered was to attempt to build a consensus among a room full of other influential leaders and executives. This situation called upon her to use a unique set of leadership skills since they all wanted to be the most influential and to lead!

However, situational leadership has too often been used as an excuse for situation ethics. Some high-powered managers who have been given appropriate nicknames such as “chainsaw” or “the hatchet” have used the premise of situational leadership or contingency theory as an excuse for instant disposal of workers due to “losses” or an “economic downturn”. Yes, I realize and accept that there are times when the workforce absolutely must be reduced. Unfortunately the cycle of growth and contraction are part of the economic system we have in the western world. The question is how this worker reduction is accomplished and how these individuals are treated. Many of these workers were highly committed people who did everything that was asked of them! Some have worked for decades under one new CEO after another, who immediately incorporated their own new “priority of the month club”. Many of these people endured years of personal career sacrifice and additional workload only to be disposed of when “chainsaw” decided to let another group of “unessential” personnel go! Perhaps what is most pathetic is what occurs when the myopic corporate board finally decides its time to let “chainsaw” go because he or she has devastated the once proud organization and its culture. It is usually done with a million-dollar “severance agreement” and a plaque for appreciation of “dedicated” service.

Does the “one best way” or universal approach have any application? It absolutely does and this question brings us to an important subject regarding truly effective leadership. Researcher Gary Yukl makes the following comment about the “one best way” or universal model created by Blake and Mouton. He states, “The universal feature of their theory is the value orientation used by a high-high manager to select appropriate behavior, not a particular pattern of high-high behavior that is applied automatically in all situations.” Yukl is correctly stating here that he believes the universal aspect of Blake and Moulton’s theory relates to the values behavior of the leader and not necessarily to the skills or traits a leader may use. There is always a best way to treat people under any circumstance. That is with respect, fairness and dignity.

For example, even if you must reprimand or correct an indignant worker you can do it privately and respectfully. There is always a “best way” to handle a coworker if they are being “let go” due to poor economic circumstances or even incompetence. That is with compassion and a sincere interest in their future. Even if you must change an existing culture or ask others to sacrifice important gains, you can do it with a deep sense of appreciation for their past efforts and commitment to the organization. In the same vein, the “best way” is to always encourage and motivate others from the heart whether they are able, unable, willing or unwilling to do a task! The same thing applies to learning. The best way for a leader to encourage a “learning organization” is to promote the value of knowledge and reward learning in any situation or environment. Yes, some leadership behaviors are universal because they are built upon an ethical foundation of respect and high regard for people! Why are these values universal? Because smart leaders know that people are their greatest natural resource and people treated with dignity, care and genuine concern are the most productive. People who are properly motivated, encouraged, trained and appreciated will far out perform others who are disrespected, discouraged, neglected or abused. In the 21st century, this is the competitive edge.

In conclusion, the “best way” or universal aspect of leadership theory is valid in regards to right values and ethics. People should never be viewed as disposable or unimportant. An effective leader must treat all employees or followers with the heartfelt values reflected in the “golden rule”, including respect, dignity and a genuine concern for the individual. This requires an investment in time and resources, even if they are limited. But this is an investment in your most powerful asset…your people! Do it right and it pays large dividends by engendering a healthy culture, increased productivity and higher levels of commitment.

Conversely, leadership does require different approaches, methods, skills and tasks for different situations. We must resist the temptation to view leadership in a narrow and oversimplified way. Yes, these approaches, skills and tasks are indeed contingent upon the present situation the leader experiences. But, understanding this legitimate need for situational leadership should never be used as a motive or excuse to mistreat or casually discard other people. Today organizations must exist to serve their stakeholders, and that not only includes their customers, but also their employees. Any organization today that doesn’t get this essential point may ultimately have their product or service displayed in the Smithsonian Institute…right next to buggy whip manufacturers!

Comments to: gthomas@32john.com

  • Quote of the Day

    “Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.”

    — Sam Walton