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"For the desert, a camel is better than a horse."
Med Yones, Economist and President of the International Institute of Management

The fundamentals of leadership - integrity, honesty, judgement, vision, communication - do not change. They create a sound foundation on which to build meaningful, sustainable results. At the same time, effective leaders adjust their behavior to meet the demands of particular tasks - and the needs of the people who will complete them. The question is how do you analyze and respond appropriately to specific situations? The Situational Leadership model can help you find your answers.

Adapting Your Leadership

Imagine these two scenarios.

  1. You have a trusted employee who has worked with you for years. You have a key client meeting, and a nasty flu. You email her, give her the relevant files, take some Nyquil, and go to bed.

  2. You just hired a promising, ambitious new employee who is fresh out of college. You have a key client meeting, and a nasty flu. You email him, give him the relevant files, and then blame Nyquil for your egregious lapse in judgement when he blows it.

Delegation and leadership are not one-size-fits-all. They do not look the same, any more than every task or every employee looks the same. The Situational Leadership concept, developed by Drs. Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, acknowledges this reality and provides a framework that enables you to tailor your behaviors to the situation at hand.

With it, you can evaluate situations in terms of:
  • Task behavior: The amount of direction and guidance you need to provide. This includes goal-setting, organizing, establishing timelines, and controlling the workflow.
  • Relationship behavior: The amount of support (social and emotional) you need to provide. This includes active listening, facilitating interactions, providing feedback, and helping with multi-directional communications.
  • Readiness: How ready (possessing the necessary knowledge, experience, and skill) and willing (confident, motivated, committed) an individual is to complete the specific task. He or she may be:

    • Unable and unwilling or insecure.
    • Unable but willing or confident.
    • Able but unwilling or insecure.
    • Able and willing and confident.

This analysis then helps you choose the leadership style that will best help you influence that person and ensure the task is completed. Hersey and Blanchard identified four broad styles:

  • Telling: You define the roles of the individual/group and give the what, how, why, when, and where they need to complete the task.
    When to Tell: According to the model, you would use this method when your people are unable and unwilling or insecure. You must provide high levels of task behavior and low levels of relationship behavior.

  • Selling: You still provide direction, but communication is two-way. You provide clarification through discussion, allowing your people to buy in to the task or process.
    When to Sell: You would sell when your people are unable but willing or confident. They require high levels of both task and relationship behavior.

  • Participation: Here, you share decision-making for how the task will be accomplished.
    When to Participate: When your people are able but unwilling or insecure, you must provide higher levels of relationship behavior but lower levels of task behavior.

  • Delegating: You are involved in decisions and monitor progress, but the individual or group assumes the responsibility.
    When to Delegate: The person or group to whom you are going to delegate a task is able, willing, and confident. Providing low levels of task and relationship behaviors allows you to take a step back.

Task-Relevant Leadership

Let's take another look at the scenarios mentioned earlier. Now, in the first one, the direct report was able, willing, and confident. She did not require high levels of behavior or relationship support to complete the task. You made the right choice by delegating the meeting and staying in bed.

In scenario number two, the fresh hire is willing and confident but unable. To complete the task well, you'd need to provide him with high levels of both behavior and relationship task support.

This changes as your direct report develops, and as tasks change. Say our young meeting-blower, for instance, continues to develop his skills. He becomes confident, willing, and able. You can dial back the task and relationship support you need to provide. Now take the same person and throw him a new type of task. He's able to do it but not confident. Here, you would have to ramp up the relationship support.

The point, say Hersey and Blanchard, is that "effective leaders must know their staff well enough to meet their ever-changing abilities and demands placed upon them." The Situational Leadership model is one tool that enables you to do this. With it, you can adapt your style as the situation and your people require. The result: you develop strong performers and make steady progress towards your goals.


Larry Hart

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