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situational leadershipCorporate leaders should take a few lessons from Jerry Seinfeld. The world’s highest paid comedian still goes to nightclubs several times a week to study his audience. By getting to know different audiences, he is able to adapt his routine to suit each situation. Best-selling management authors Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey understood the secret to success of Seinfeld. Through their popular theory called situational leadership, they advise managers that there is no best style of leadership. The most effective leaders, they conclude, adapt their style to fit the situation and group. When developing your leadership style, take a lesson from the adaptive style of Seinfeld, Blanchard and Hersey.

The type of situational leadership style to adopt depends on the leadership requirements (leadership style) to meet the needs of a group (group style). Situational leadership considers four leadership styles and four group styles.

Leadership Style

S1 – Telling is similar to the top-down leadership style based on one-way communication. The leader sets the agenda, defines the roles of group members and assigns the tasks for getting the job done. A weakness of this style is lack of employee participation and empowerment, and thus motivation, which are factors shown to lead to lower performance.

S2 – Selling provides a two-way communication path to the leader who allows input from other stakeholders. Since the stakeholders help to set the agenda, they are more likely to support the process and be motivated to meet goals.

S3 – Participating allows for employee participation. This is more of a two-way bottom-up model. Stakeholders have a say in how tasks will be accomplished.

S4 – Delegating is the employee empowerment model. Decisions are made from the bottom-up. Employees are empowered and motivated, which are factors shown to produce higher performance.

Group Style

Which leadership style to use will depend on the group style. Groups are considered to have four levels of maturity.

M1 – This group lacks the skills to perform the job. Employees require close management supervision to perform tasks.

M2 – These employees are not given responsibility for their work. They work diligently at their tasks but are not very motivated to go the extra mile.

M3 – This group has the experience and knowhow to complete a job but are not motivated to take responsibility for the job.

M4 – This group is capable of achieving and managing the task. They work optimally when they are empowered to make decisions about the work to perform.

A third dimension to the situational leadership model is the development levels of employees, which depend on:

Competency and commitment can be low, high, or variable.

Three decades after its development, situational leadership remains a popular leadership development model. It has improved through the years through continuous development. In the same way Seinfeld still does standup comedy shtick, Blanchard still works with leaders to evaluate how they are reading employees. Over the years, Blanchard et al. have refined the model and improved the tools.

How to Diagnose and Adapt to a Leadership Situation

Seinfeld says there is a lot of information in laughter.  By the timber in the voices, he can tell what type of audience he is dealing with. The ability to deliver the right lines to the right audience have made him the wealthiest (a net worth around $800 million in 2010) and most famous comedian. No doubt, corporate leaders want to emulate his style and success.

Situational Leadership II is a model and tools to help leaders read their employees like Seinfeld reads an audience. Foremost, it helps leaders determine the development level of employees. Once this is ascertained, the communication model can be developed to support a high performance organization. The coach needs a full set of tools to help employees achieve high performance, including active listening, providing feedback and coaching, and facilitating problem solving. Accountability is key to ensuring both employees and leaders perform their goals.

Leadership Evaluation and Assessment

The ability of leaders to adapt behaviors to meet one-on-one situations is a key component of leadership development.  Two-way lines of communication are paramount to receiving constructive feedback – you must be able to hear the employee audience clapping, booing and hissing.

Situational Leadership – Frontline

The effective management of frontline managers is critical to the success of a company. Frontline managers liaise with all stakeholders in an organization – senior management, employees, customers and suppliers. If frontline managers are demotivated, it will affect all levels of your business. When their roles and responsibilities are set only by senior managers, the risk of unhappy frontline managers is much higher. Situational frontline leadership focuses on building partnerships throughout the personal and professional development of managers.

Like senior executives, frontline managers are taught how to diagnose situations and set up the appropriate communications channels to partner with other stakeholders. They then can apply situational tools – active listening, feedback, and so on. The cost of ignoring the happiness of frontline managers and thus these important stakeholders is high. How high? Find out with the Blanchard Cost-of-Doing Nothing Calculator.

Situational Leadership – Self Leadership

Moving from low to high competency and commitment can be achieved through self-empowerment. When individuals take responsibility for their actions, they become more creative, initiative takers, and idea generators. And these skills make them better problem solvers. Leaders must also learn self-empowerment. We invest a lot in assessing employees but how much do you understand and manage yourself? By understanding your management preferences, personality type, and leadership strengths and weaknesses, you can analyze yourself strategically and thrive.

Situational Leadership – Team

Team dynamics can be difficult to diagnose. The team leader must not only identify the types of individuals on the team but also ‘synchronize’ their behavior. Employees want to be empowered to make their own decisions. A team of empowered people can be difficult to manage without the right communications structure. Worst case scenario, a meeting will be sabotaged by competing egos. This scenario is still better than a team of members who are not committed and motivated to participate. Opening up communication on a team will facilitate cooperation. The Dialogue Model taught in 4 Simple Leadership Tools for Every Team Member is an effective team communication tool.

To empower employees, as a leader, you want to develop them into highly competent and highly committed employees. When you do not have high performing employees, then you have to manage from top-down. Only bottom-up management creates empowered employees and frontline managers who motivate others.

Ken Blanchard aptly describes the extra burden of top-down management on managers in his article the Art of Managing Monkeys. An employee comes to your office with a client problem he needs to solve – the monkey on his back. If you have developed a highly confident and competent employee, you can ask him: What do you advise to fix the problem? If the employee is of low commitment and low competence, you will respond: Okay, let me see what I can do to fix the client problem. Now, the monkey is on your back!

Situational leadership is a model; it should be supported with ongoing leadership skill development. To keep the monkey off of your back and develop highly competent and committed employees, learn Motivational Leadership. Emotional intelligence may be another missing link in your productivity, retention, team building and customer loyalty programs.

“In the past a leader was a boss. Today’s leaders must be partners with their people…. they no longer can lead solely based on positional power.”

— Ken Blanchard


Page Last Updated: February 2020

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