Situational Leadership: The Rise of the Leader with Many Hats
Updated: Dec 1, 2022
Alan was a collaborative leader. Whatever the challenge he faced, he strived to include several people to reach a strong consensus. His team felt lucky to have him as manager. He listened and discussed with them as equals, relying on their expertise and taking the time to evaluate options before making a decision.
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So, when the whole CRM system crashed because of a provider’s failure, Alan and his team went to their time-proven approach of analyzing data and brainstorming together for a solution. This, of course, would take several days, during which many critical parts of the company would be essentially paralyzed, with an obvious impact on the reputation as all kinds of customer relations, such as orders and complaints, had to be paused.
Not everyone was surprised when Michele, Alan’s boss, suddenly entered his office one hour after the crisis started and asked him why it was not resolved yet. Alan, in his usual kind and patient manner, answered by walking her through what he was going to do in the next few days not only to resolve the problem but also to ensure it wouldn’t happen anymore. After a few minutes of explanation, Michele abruptly interrupted Alan and told him she would take over to find an immediate solution with the provider, while Alan would focus on understanding what happened and come up with a longer-term solution.
Later that day, as Alan looked down at the city through his office window, he thought about what happened earlier with Michele. Did he not rise to the challenge? Did he choose the wrong course of action? Or was Michele simply wrong to dismiss his approach? His proverbial reflection in the window helped him reflect on his behaviors. “Yes,” he thought, “I was in auto-pilot. I didn’t really consider other ways of solving this crisis.”
The week after the crisis, Alan went apprehensively to his weekly one-to-one meeting with Michele. He told her that he realized he could have adopted a more effective approach to solve the crisis. Michele encouraged him to get a good look at his leadership style and learn how to adapt to various situations.
Indeed, she explained, as the organization goes through drastic changes to stay relevant in this time of great challenges, leaders will increasingly be expected to deal with a wide range of opportunities and threats, each requiring different leadership postures. Tomorrow you might be called upon to foster creative solutions for a new product, and the day after tomorrow you might have to make a quick and unpopular decision to resolve an interpersonal conflict.
Alan, far from being scared, saw this instead as an opportunity to learn and improve his leadership skills. A few weeks later, Michele invited experts in leadership agility to run a discovery workshop with her management team to discuss how to develop situational leadership.
Alan, as it turned out, was a one-trick pony. He was a great leader in some situations, but hopelessly ineffective in others.
We all have a go-to leadership style. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t learn other leadership styles. Better, with a clear understanding of the situation at hand and an awareness of our own leadership skills, we can deliberately summon our best inner leader for the situation.
We all have a go-to leadership style. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t learn other leadership styles.
The model below helps understand where your leadership habits stand and what they are good or not so good at.
Adapted from Josephs, S. A., & Joiner, W. B. (2006). Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change. Jossey-Bass, and Rooke, D., & Torbert, W. R. (2005). Seven Transformations of Leadership. Harvard Business Review, 13.
As the percentages show, there is a great gap between achiever (conventional) leadership and catalyst (post-conventional) leadership. This is not surprising, since achieving post-conventional leadership stages requires a higher level of consciousness and not just skills. One also has to interpret these stages conservatively. For example, a leader who happens to “let others learn from their mistakes” once is not a synergist. For her to be a synergist, the behavior must be intentional and habitual.
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Each leadership development stage has its pros and cons. For example, a conformer leader is great at managing teams and processes that require first and foremost predictability and abiding to strict procedures. An expert leader makes an excellent mentor for junior recruits who need guidance on how to perform activities. A transformer leader is the right person to engage teams in transformation and lead them through uncertainty.
If you look back at great leaders you’ve met, you’ll probably notice that they were able to seamlessly mix and match leadership styles. Which means that a leader having reached say, catalyst stage, can deliberately behave in any of the lower leadership stages if needed. This peculiarity challenges the idea that higher styles are always better than lower ones. In our little story, Alan might have some of the catalyst leader’s skills, but he did not recognize that solving the crisis would require more of an achiever or expert leadership style. Effective leadership is eminently situational; it morphs to suit the context and situation at hand.
Effective leadership is eminently situational; it morphs to suit the context and situation at hand.
This one-pager exercise will help you grasp the leadership development stages more concretely. Just connect the dots!
If you want to know more about broadening your leadership abilities, have a look at our insights on Expanding Your Leadership Styles to Match Diverse Situations.
Josephs, S. A., & Joiner, W. B. (2006). Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change. Jossey-Bass
Rooke, D., & Torbert, W. R. (2005). Seven Transformations of Leadership. Harvard Business Review, 13
Images generated by OpenAI DALL-E
Connect with Bruno Collet on LinkedIn.
Bruno Collet advises and coaches leaders to develop the individual and organizational capability to anticipate and react to changes better and faster. In one word: Agility. His approach relies on action-learning with concrete practices, skills and behaviors. Bruno Collet executed top-level missions with several organizations internationally. He is also a recognized speaker, author and is accredited ICAgile instructor. Bruno Collet holds an MBA, MSc., as well as several certifications such as PMP, PMI-ACP, ICP-LEA (Leading with Agility), ICP-ORG (Adaptive Organization), ICP-ENT (Enterprise Coaching) and ICP-AHR (Agile Human Resources).