Different people in different situations require different leadership approaches. This is about as radical as saying that the sun rises in the East, and yet it is one of the most overlooked aspects of management in corporate America. The adaptability required of an effective manager is too often stifled by apathy, bureaucracy, or office politics. Those that truly want to inspire do their best with the cards they hold, but often it is not enough. With poor leadership employee morale suffers, turnover increases, and the corporate culture decays.
Leadership frameworks are almost as numerous as the leaders they seek to inform, and as a natural realist I’m quick to recognize that the primary benefit of any framework is the ability to provide consistency of approach and thought to all levels of an organization. When you communicate a specific, actionable guide to everyone within the organization, it reduces redundancy and miscommunication. That said, of all the leadership frameworks I have always thought the Situational Leadership model outlined in Ken Blanchard’s Leadership and the One Minute Manager best encapsulates the reality leaders face on the ground.
The Situational Leadership Framework
Most will be familiar with it, but for the uninitiated the model identifies four natural stages of development:
D1 – the enthusiastic beginner,
D2 – the disillusioned learner,
D3 – the capable but cautious performer, and
D4 – the self-reliant achiever
Each of these is paired with a style of management, gradually being granted more and more autonomy and independence until the employee is essentially self-managed and just being assigned tasks. Following the order of development, the levels of supervision are entitled:
S1 – directing,
S2 – coaching,
S3 – supporting, and
S4 – delegating
Directing, as the name would imply, involves direct supervision and prescriptive commands, telling someone what to do and how to do it. Coaching is a more involved process, where the manager solicits input but still has a heavily supervisory role. Since this is the most common place for disillusionment, the best leaders realize this and often become cheerleaders here. After this comes the Junior Varsity leagues, where someone has skills and valuable input, but still requires assistance. The major change is that here the impetus is on the mentee to seek help, rather than vice versa. Socratic questioning can often be employed to aid in development. Finally, someone reaches the delegating phase where they can consistently perform at a high level with minimal guidance.
A Practical Application
Our consultants use this model when making personnel development decisions for clients and within our own organization. The prescriptive power of this tool is best illustrated with a story. Working with a major medical device manufacturer, one of our consultants was overseeing the internship program. Most interns can be classified by default in the first category – enthusiastic beginners. At this level someone does not know what they do not know, yet they are very eager to jump in and get started. Most professionals can think of a few people that fit into this category from time to time, exhibiting all the unwarranted confidence and optimism that comes with the “change the world” spirit. Those with longer memories may recall a time when they themselves fit into this category as well.
After a very short time on the job with the company, one intern claimed she “got it” and was ready to take charge of optimizing one of the lines in a factory. Our consultant allowed her the autonomy she wanted, knowing that, while it likely would not have the impressive outcome she was seeking, it would push her along into the next level of development. Sure enough, when she presented her solutions, they were good, but far from sufficient. Likewise, when questioned, her confidence visibly melted. While she was understandably flustered by the experience, our team member quickly pointed out to her that she had progressed and was becoming a disillusioned learner. It is important to note that all the interns had been introduced to this process early on and ostensibly knew the bird’s eye plan for their professional growth. We often say, “leadership is something you do with someone, not to them”.
This sequence of events naturally changed the nature of the management style she received. With the intern leader taking on a coaching role for her, she quickly progressed through the remaining stages. She was a great sport about her initial setback, and grew rapidly from the experience.
Leadership and Highly Effective Teams
It is important to realize that someone can be at different development levels in different jobs or contexts. Therefore, the Situational Leadership Model’s power is in its recognition of people as dynamic and unique. With the intuitive appeal and straightforward approach, it is also easy to explain the model to individuals with minimal exposure to leadership training and gain the essential buy in that it requires. When mentees fully understand what is being done to manage their progression and why, the process is so much smoother. After all, leadership is a partnership, not a solo enterprise.
As we spoke about a few weeks ago, earning buy in is critical for successful leadership. This creates a culture where workers are happy to restructure their daily schedules to accommodate improvement recommendations. Together with Situational Leadership, learners are more openly accepting feedback and constructive criticism leading to growth and development.
Realizing constraints is important for any leader. When those constraints are imposed by the organization – possibly standard procedures for new hires that are not ideal, or excessive reporting requirements – it can be difficult to overcome. While you may not be able to use the ideal, textbook version of the Situational Leadership Model, even a curtailed version can be effective. As we said, being adaptable is not a controversial idea. With a small taste of success from an even pared back application of this basic idea, and you just might be able to influence the entire organization to be more adaptable and poised for ongoing growth and success.