Understanding The Situational Leadership Style

Situational leadership has its origin as a series of studies done in the 50s. The research is still as valid today as when it was first done.

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Many years ago, researchers started by asking a very important question, “Is there one best leadership style?” This is an extremely important question— for transformational leaders since it would simplify the notion of influence immensely; one would only need to learn one style and learn it really well. It would mean that the situation would not affect the leader’s behavior. It would be like learning to swim, one could focus on backstroke and not worry about the rest.

The term situational leadership came to be associated with a series of studies done by two American universities Ohio State—Michigan. Since situational leadership could be based on almost an infinite number of situational variables, it really is a difficult thing to study.

To give you a flavor for how difficult this is, here is a story on influence. There was a story told by Christian Herter, a former Governor of Massachusetts.

One day after a busy day of campaigning, he arrived at a church barbecue. Being hungry, he got into line like everyone else. It just so happened that the lady serving the chicken only put one piece on his plate. “Excuse me,” said the Governor, “Can I have another piece of chicken?” “Sorry,” said the woman, “I’m can only give one piece of chicken per person. ” “But I’m starved,” the governor said. “Sorry, only one to a customer,” said the woman. Seeing that the polite and respectful was futile, he decided to try a different approach—in this case, the influence tactic of authority. “Lady, do you know who I am?” he said. “I am the governor of this state.” “Do you know who I am?” the woman said, “I’m the lady in charge of the chicken. Move along!”

The governor tried several different leadership styles. The most obvious one being the use of authority. But in even this simple story, one can understand that influence is affected by the situation. If the lady had an extra chicken, or if the line was shorter, the request might have been granted.


Take the following test and determine how well you understand the relationship between leadership and situation. In this case, we are going to simplify the style elements to task and people orientation.

QUESTION 1: The most successful leaders stress task completion and getting the work out? ________ True _______ False

BEST ANSWER: TRUE: In many different classes over the years, I have asked participants a very simple question, “Do your managers and executives care more about profits (the task) or people. The vast majority when forced to choose, say profits. But it doesn’t always work. Of course, one needs to get the job done but when the numbers get figured, it’s often the people who get crunched. Task orientation, relative to the relationship orientation, is an extremely common style; indeed, it may be the most common style in use in today’s world

QUESTION 2: Successful leaders stress maintaining solid relationships and taking care of their people. ________ True _______ False

BEST ANSWER: FALSE: Compared to task orientation, a relationship is often secondary. You hear this in many rationalizations used in the world of business. One that comes to mind is “Business is business,” or “It’s just business.” This is a strange excuse people use to put profits first and people second.

QUESTION 3: There is one leadership style for all leadership situations? ________ True _______ False

BEST ANSWER: FALSE, unfortunately. Better to be true because the vast majority of people are not that behaviorally flexible and the same style no matter how different the situation is. One aspect of the situation that greatly impacts leadership is the climate surrounding standard operating procedures versus what happens when people perceive a crisis.

Another more tragic example is that of parent and child. Authority works when the child is young. But then around 11 to 13 years in many cultures, ordering the child around doesn’t work so well. So if the parent has not already done so when the kid is young, the parent decides to yell louder and threaten the use of punishment. This also works for a while. But then, for many children, the yelling and punishment stop working but the parent keeps using it anyway.

This leads to the often-repeated line heard in managerial circles, “We keep doing same things, the same way, but always expect better results.”

QUESTION 4: There is one best leadership approach for all types of groups? ________ True _______ False

BEST ANSWER: FALSE. At the group level, one would like to think that a standard style would work. However, groups are not homogeneous, they vary according to their stage of development, the personalities that make up the group, and even the nature of the task.

QUESTION 5: There is one leadership approach that works for all individuals? ________ True _______ False

BEST ANSWER: FALSE. If only this were true. Most individuals get this one right, there is no best style for the individual. We have all had experiences where what works for one does not work for the other.

For example, if you want to influence someone to go to a movie, you might say, “This is the greatest movie that the director has done and it was the most popular movie of all movies playing this week.” Such a direct, persuasive approach will work for many it will not work for those with a “contrarian personality.”

Unfortunately, I know you are too busy to take time to go so I’m going to have to go by myself.”

QUESTION 6: Is it possible to change your leadership style?

________ True _______ False

BEST ANSWER: TRUE. Almost everybody gets this one right. Perhaps it is due to the nature of the word “possible.”

If the question would have read, “It is easy to change your leadership style?” the answer would be false. While we all realize the importance of role flexibility, few people are likely to do so.


If you got all five, you are doing pretty well—you must not have fallen asleep in your first college class on management. You already understand what many have yet to figure out—that the situation is an important element in the choice of a leadership style.

If all groups are the same, all individuals act with one mind and situations did not vary, one could perfect and optimize one style and the situational leadership aspect of transformational leadership would be much simpler, much easier.

Leaders must adapt, they must be flexible if they are to be effective in their exercise of influence.

Aesop said this very well in one of his fables thousands of years ago. The story goes: 

A RAVEN saw a Swan and desired to secure for himself the same beautiful plumage. Supposing that the Swan’s splendid white color arose from his washing in the water in which he swam, the Raven left the altars in the neighborhood where he picked up his living and took up residence in the lakes and pools. But cleansing his feathers as often as he would, he could not change their color.

Moral of the Story: One cannot change one’s nature, but one can change one’s behavior.

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