What is situational leadership? (With examples and traits)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 22 June 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Strong leaders adopt various styles to provide direction, motivate team members and implement successful plans, which is why situational leadership is important in the workplace today. Situational leadership is an adaptive style where leaders consider team members and variables in the working environment to find the leadership style that is most productive. If you want to be a good leader, consider integrating situational leadership by adapting your style to fit specific circumstances and goals. In this article, we look at the definition of situational leadership, highlight its advantages and disadvantages and give examples of it in the workplace.

What is situational leadership?

If you're interested in a flexible approach to leadership, then the situational leadership model may be for you. This management style centres around a leader's ability to modify strategies to suit different contexts and develop the optimum leadership style for each new situation. An effective leader uses insight to determine when they might change leadership style through changing circumstances. Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey describe situational leadership models clearly in their book, Management of Organizational Behaviour. They outline the four main leadership styles as:

  • Telling: Leaders often take this approach when the team needs close guidance and supervision. Management decides on objectives, make decisions without input from the team and communicates their decisions to the team, the telling style of leadership is particularly effective when the team is at apprenticeship or novice level.

  • Selling: Situational managers often use the selling style to boost team members' or employee motivation levels. It involves explaining and convincing employees to follow ideas.

  • Participating: Leaders participate in the decision-making process, but let the team make the final decision. When the team works competently but is reluctant to work on their own initiative, the participating leadership style might be a productive choice for leaders.

  • Delegating: The delegating style suits a situation where the team is productive and works efficiently with minimal guidance from management.

The workplace is a dynamic setting where situations and team configurations often change. Changes may happen gradually but can be unpredictable, with little time for organisations to adjust. Situational leadership favours flexibility where a leader may choose from a repertoire of styles to suit individual contexts, rather than just using one style.

Related: Leadership models: What are they and how do they differ?

What are the essential traits and qualities of a situational leader?

A leader that takes the situational leadership approach assesses the organisation, teams and arising changes and uses this as the basis for their leadership style. Such leaders re-evaluate situations and readily adjust their way of working to suit the context. Important qualities for effective situational leadership include:

  • Communication: The strong situational leader understands the needs of their team. They get to know team members' strengths and weaknesses by talking and connecting with them and delivering instructions and communicating decisions with clarity.

  • Flexibility: This is a key quality, adaptation to change and an enthusiasm for trying novel approaches to fit the changing dynamics in the workplace and in the business world is crucial.

  • Problem-solving: Finding creative solutions to changing situations and problems is key.

  • Direction: Teams require varying levels of direction and supervision to produce effective results. The leader needs to navigate and clearly communicate the direction of projects and endeavours.

  • Coaching skills: Successful situational leaders coach their teams towards independence and professional growth. They guide by encouraging team members.

  • Delegation: A successful situational leader is happy to delegate tasks. He or she can easily discern when team members are capable of working on their own initiative and encourage them to do so.

  • Honesty: A situational leader who is honest with themselves when a situation changes and can admit when a particular style is not working, is more likely to gain the trust of their team. Adopting another strategy if it's likely to be more effective sets a positive example to members of the team.

Related: 13 leadership styles and their characteristics

Advantages of situational leadership

Situational leadership is now a widely used leadership model on a worldwide scale. It's an approach that aims to improve the development and motivation of employees. Its success depends less on the skills of the leader or manager and more on the leader's ability to adapt their skills to meet circumstances in the workplace. Situational leadership offers many advantages to leaders and team members. We list some advantages below:

  • It's a simple model for leaders to understand and use. It gives leaders a clear way of assessing which leadership style might work best with individual employees in specific situations.

  • It promotes positive working relationships. Effective situational leadership increases employee motivation and balances micromanagement with sufficient encouragement and supervision where appropriate.

  • Clear situational leadership empowers team members. Staff are more productive and engaged. It improves staff retention.

  • Combined efforts achieve results. It encourages collaborative working and interaction between team members to achieve company goals.

  • This style of leadership can decrease anxiety levels among staff. A leader who clearly communicates the purposes of tasks and changes in the workplace provides a reassuring presence for staff during uncertain times.

  • Situational leaders address employee skill levels. They identify employee needs and provide training opportunities that enable staff to perform their tasks competently.

  • Situational leaders are flexible. Situational leaders can fit into any type of leadership roles within teams to meet business demands.

Related: The ultimate guide to management styles

Disadvantages of situational leadership

There are situations when this type of leadership is not the most effective model. This section considers instances when situational leadership may not be the best style to assume:

  • Repetitive tasks are not suited to situational leadership. Team members benefit more from clear instruction and supervision during repetitive tasks.

  • Situational leaders focus on immediate needs. Staff circumstances might make it challenging for them to consider long-term staff development and future business objectives.

  • Leaders might make incorrect assumptions. They might overestimate the maturity of team members, including their motivation levels.

  • Leaders might not fully grasp team members' perspectives. This sometimes happens when team members are of a different gender.

  • Success strongly depends on the leader's ability to read other people. Situational leaders need to be able to gauge others' abilities, needs and motivational levels and act accordingly, but if the leader lacks this insight or misinterprets a situation, they may come up with inappropriate or ineffective solutions.

  • Team members might be unwilling to adapt. Repeated sudden changes of approach or management style may become confusing.

  • A situational leader is difficult to replace in the workplace. Insights into team members' personalities and knowledge of their strengths and maturity levels take time to develop. If a situational leader is absent or leaves a company, it can be difficult for employees to adjust to a more traditional style of management which might cause sudden increases in staff turnover.

Examples of situational leadership

You can implement situational leadership with its flexibility and relationship-centred approach in workplaces in different ways. This paragraph clarifies how the four styles of situational leadership might be effective in some common workplace contexts through examples:

Example 1

Schools had to close, so headteachers implemented step-by-step instructions and a teaching model to heads of departments and teaching staff on how to provide online education for pupils. Gradually, as parents and pupils gave feedback about the effectiveness of the online education provision, management advised teachers to make small changes. Teaching staff changed their methods accordingly. As teachers built up experience in online education, the managerial approach diminished. Teachers gradually became autonomous with less supervision and eventually devised their own systems for online education.

Example 2

A manager approaches a new staff member to suggest that they organise the staff charity coffee morning. The new employee is interested but has no experience in event management. The manager carefully details the benefits of the coffee morning and tells the employee why it's so important. He gives the employee an opportunity to ask questions about organising the morning.

Example 3

An employee has organised a successful conference in previous years but appears to be behind schedule this year with bookings and administrative tasks. The leader initiates a conversation on how they are managing the event planning and makes suggestions with a timeline to get the project moving faster.

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