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What is Situational Leadership? Just as every leader is different, so is every team. In fact, every member of every team is different which means that not every leadership style is suitable for every team or every teammate. An effective leadership style for one team may not be well-suited for another team. Such is the theory of Situational Leadership.

As anyone who has watched 4-year old’s play soccer knows, you wouldn’t coach a soccer team of pre-schoolers the same way you would coach a world cup championship team. In fact, you wouldn’t want to coach a team of kids whose parents dragged them to soccer practice the same way you’d coach a group of kids who hounded their parents to be there.

Acknowledging that coaching styles differ based on the commitment level to the cause or skill is the genius of the Situational Leadership Model developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, in the 1970s. Their theory posits (a word this author uses to seem more credible as does this author refers to himself here in the third person while haughtily calling himself “author”), that there are different strokes for different folks or that there are four major leadership styles that work best with teams depending on their skill level and commitment level.

Situational Leadership dictates that leadership style is best adjusted based on the competence and commitment level of the team. Certain leadership traits lend themselves better for specific styles of leadership and therefore the traits a leader chooses to emphasize need to be tailored to the team (see this post on Leadership Traits).

Many years ago, I was a youth hockey coach, coaching kids from the age of 7 up to 15. Normally I’d coach a house league. These teams would be made up of 14 kids of which 2 or 3 would be all-stars and the rest of varying degrees of ability including some that could barely skate. In-house league, we gave everyone equal ice time no matter the ability.

During several seasons, in addition to the house league, I’d coach an all-star team of house league skaters that would play against travel teams in tournaments as well as against all-stars from nearby hockey clubs.

Coaching the house league was about teaching, and getting the better players to work with the less experienced and capable players.

Coaching the all-star team was all about working the conditioning of the kids in practice. Being hard on them and making sure that we had the best players on the ice at the right time.

While our All-Star Teams literally won every tournament we played in and most games. Coaching the house teams was more rewarding for me as a coach, a father, and a human. Why? I’ll give you two of many examples.

  1. We were playing in the first round of the championship tournament. We were leading in the game and a win was assured. In the final period with 5 minutes to go, my son, an exceptional skater and stick handler skated the puck to the goal and made a sneaky move. The goalie fell and left the goal wide open. My son had a guaranteed goal which would have been his third… a hat trick. Instead, he pushed the puck to one of the weakest skaters on the team and that kid scored the goal.. his first goal in 16 games on the team.
  2. There was a kid, a son of a diplomat on the team. As a skater, he was fast and smooth. He was an average player because he didn’t have that killer instinct, didn’t have great stick skills, and rarely took a shot. Oftentimes, he would seem depressed and upset. Sometimes even crying in practice and once on the bench during a game. I spent an inordinate amount of time coaching, cajoling, and encouraging this kid. At the annual awards ceremony, his mother came up to me to thank me for working with her son and told me they would be moving back to their native country. She then related that the end-of-year school project for her son was to write an essay on someone who had the most positive effect on his life. The mom told me he wrote about me. I’m a wimp so I got teary-eyed and thanked her.

Guess what? I was Mr. Cranky with the All-Star Team, I was Coach Caring with the house team. Even though the All-Star team won multiple trophies. No one ever thanked Mr. Cranky.

We, humans, have many different traits that enable us to be great or crappy leaders. As leaders, it is our responsibility to dig into our traits and emphasize those traits that are best suited to our team. The traits I emphasized when taking over a demoralized team in a turn-around situation were not the same traits I modeled in a high-growth sales situation.

In high growth sales in a company that was racing towards IPO, I emphasized:

  • Accountability
  • Impatience
  • Delegation
  • Visionary
  • Enabling

In the turn-around situation, I pulled out of my crayon box and emphasized a different list of traits.

  • Authentic
  • Empathetic
  • Coaching
  • Enthusiastic
  • Patience

Now we can argue whether I chose the right traits for the right team but we couldn’t argue that I was a different style of leader based on the situation.

In a list I keep of over 100 leadership traits, I might choose the following traits for each of the four types of teams:

The key to situational leadership as in any leadership is to be authentic. As when I coached the All-Stars and the House League… Mr. Cranky and Coach were both authentically me. You can’t fake caring. You can’t fake a high sense of urgency. Choosing the right authentic traits for the team and the time is key.

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