All Articles Leadership Management The case for just-in-time leadership

The case for just-in-time leadership

Leadership today demands in-the-moment responsiveness. You can’t afford to misread people’s needs or default to using your power to drive results.

4 min read


Just in time

Susan Fowler

Do you wake up each morning hell-bent on making someone at work miserable? Do you intentionally ignore people or purposely avoid giving them what they need to succeed? Are you totally oblivious to the affect your leadership has on those you lead?

Sit in on one of my courses on self leadership and you might be surprised how many employees are convinced you do.

Even when you have the best of intentions, research shows, you may have blind spots when it comes to developing your staff and helping them achieve their goals. Consider these three potential obstacles to being someone’s best boss.

  1. You provide inappropriate direction and support. The Ken Blanchard Cos.’ years of data collection reveals that most managers either give too much direction to those who don’t need it (micromanage) or don’t provide enough direction when they do (under supervise). Same with providing support, such as listening and providing rationale.
  2. You rely too much on your power. University of San Diego professor Drea Zigarmi measured people’s perception of a leader’s use of power. His team found that when you depend on your power, in almost every form, to get something done, it undermines people’s ability to experience the high-quality motivation that stimulates innovative thinking, productivity, and flourishing.
  3. You are not a mind reader. Duh. Your lack of mind reading ability combined with a tendency to misread and misinterpret people’s motivators, as Ken Kovach’s found in his seminal research, makes it really hard to know what people need, let alone provide it.

A major aspect of your leadership role is developing your people—providing them with the direction and support they need to succeed. Leadership also requires you to be forward-thinking and plan for the future. But anticipating people’s needs is almost impossible with today’s disruptions and uncertainties.

Just-in-time Leadership

Now, more than ever, leadership demands in-the-moment responsiveness. You can’t afford to misread people’s needs or default to using your power to drive results. Now is the perfect time for JIT leadership strategies that focus on partnering with your individual contributors.

  1. Develop individual contributors’ (ICs) proactive self leadership skills. The key to executing on your initiatives, from implementing change to customer service programs, lies with the proactive behavior of ICs. Researchers report that specific proactive behaviors, such as ICs asking for what they need for achieving their goals, are essential for organizational success. The good news is that these essential proactive behaviors are teachable. Become an advocate for training that develops ICs’ self leadership skills.
  2. Know when to facilitate problems, rather than solve them. One of the best ways to develop self-reliance in ICs, is to demonstrate a clear problem-solving process when they are in the learning stages. As the IC becomes more skilled or progresses on their goal, the trick is to shift from solving the problem, to facilitating their problem solving. If you’ve done a good job of modeling how to solve problems, you will be amazed and pleased with how ICs go from problem spotting to problem solving.
  3. Establish new norms. Communicate your good intentions to give your ICs what they need when they need it. But also establish new ground rules. Remind them, “I am not a mind reader.” Form a partnership where the new norm is that they ask for your feedback on a regular basis, instead of waiting for you to “give it to them.”

Encourage ICs to use the powerful “I need” phrase to express when they need direction (“I need you to clarify expectation, show me how, generate an action plan, and clarify roles,” e.g.). Same thing when they need support (“I need you as a sounding board for testing my idea, to remind me why this is so important, and facilitate my problem solving,” e.g.).

Your leadership is crucial to your people’s success, but it’s only one side of the leadership coin. The other side of the coin is self-leadership. These days of disruption and uncertainty demand developing new just-in-time strategies. Those strategies depend on successfully developing the proactive self-leadership skills and self-reliance of your individual contributors


Susan Fowler is the co-author of the newly revised “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard and Laurence Hawkins, and lead developer of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Self Leadership product line. She is also the author of the bestseller “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work… and What Does.” Fowler is a senior consulting partner at The Ken Blanchard Cos. and a professor in the Master of Science in Executive Leadership Program at the University of San Diego.

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader.