All Articles Leadership Management The strength of situational leadership

The strength of situational leadership

5 min read


Most org charts propagate the myth of the lone leader. They are typically drawn as a pyramid culminating in a singular person at the top: the CEO. The obvious problem with this paradigm is that no one leader has everything it takes to lead well in every situation. The leader who motivates during a crisis is often different than the leader who shines in times of peace. For this reason, situational leadership has been advanced as a major theory of leadership.

No matter what strengths a singular leader has, he or she still has weaknesses and shortcomings — even blindspots — that can prove detrimental to achieving the overarching goals of the organization. The only way to overcome the inherent problem of solo leadership is to adjust our thinking toward more balanced leadership.

This type of leadership is based on the idea that different leaders working together in a collaborative fashion are superior to any one of them working on their own. Though we don’t usually reflect it on the org chart, leaders with contrary drives and temperaments naturally pair up and work well together.

Examples of this reality are everywhere. The introverted Mark Zuckerberg pairs with the extroverted Sheryl Sandberg to take Facebook to new heights. Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer partnered to achieve success with Microsoft. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs together created the Apple computer.

The most successful companies learn to leverage the two opposing, yet necessary, leadership styles of yin and yang, and position both to create healthy balance in the organization. Yin leaders are typically well-planned, analytical, team-oriented and wise. Yang leaders are usually good in crises, results-oriented, visionary and hopeful. The correct combination of these strengths, depending on the situation, can be powerful.

Here are four leadership situations that each require a different type of leader:

Titanic-like crises

These scenarios can take various forms at a company. A crisis leader is needed to move the organization to action, to push for results and solutions, and to do so quickly. This is no time to be planning seat assignments for lifeboats. There is more to be lost through inaction than there is to be lost by moving forward and making imperfect decisions. There is very little time to think here; a leader must act on instinct. The crisis leader doesn’t waste time analyzing the situation, but instead acts decisively and effectively to bring the team quickly to safety or to achieve critical results.

Declining passion and engagement

In this situation, the organization has become lack-luster and has settled into a comfortable semi-slumber. No one cares much about anything. Quality, commitment and progress can drastically slip during this state of disengagement. The leadership need here is motivational and inspirational: The visionary leader. This type of leader reignites passion, and reminds people what they believe and why they believe it. Instilling optimism, hope and direction is necessary in this type of situation. The visionary leader can see with clarity where the organization is going and what must be done to get there.

Trust-deficient cultures

It can be an extremely challenging situation when an organization is experiencing low levels of trust. When fear is in the water — maybe because of surprise layoffs or the failure of management to communicate major changes or initiatives — team members feel disrespected, undervalued and disconnected. Everyone feels a bit off balance; people are operating out of anxiety and perpetuating water cooler rumors that only exacerbate the situation. A team leader is needed in this situation, to bring back healthy predictability and stability. The team leader is masterful in connecting the group, creating a sense of safety, security, trust and belonging.

Insufficient quality

In this scenario, the organization is suffering from a lack of attention to detail. Balls are dropping through cracks, and many of the specifics are being missed. This is the cumulative effect of the lack of planning and organizing — the team barely gets the products out the door and performs only the minimal level of service because every day feels like catch up. This scenario requires an organized leader who understand the details of the plan, knows how all the pieces fit together, can anticipate adjustments that may need to be made as the work unfolds and ensures that goals are met. When the organized leader steps up to the plate, quality increases and stress decreases, and the result is a surge in pride and dedication from employees.

Each of these situations is suited to a different kind of leader, yet it’s not realistic to change out leadership each time a new challenge arises. The answer can be found in shifting the concept of leadership to the plural, moving from “I” to “we.” No matter where leaders fall on the leadership spectrum, they cannot be all things. Multiple strengths and perspectives are needed for overall success. This is the essence of the argument for situational leadership.

Andy Johnson is an executive coach to yin leaders and a team health specialist with Price Associates. He is a licensed counselor, speaker, and the author of “Introvert Revolution: Leading Authentically in a World That Says You Can’t.” Andy is also a faculty member for The Complete Leader.

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