The situational approach to leadership was first developed in 1969 by Hershey and Blanchard and was primarily based on Reddin’s 1967 3-D Management Style Theory (as cited in: PSU WC, L5, p. 12). The main idea of this approach is that the leader needs to adjust and match their style of leadership with the needs of the followers. The needs of the follower are based on their levels of commitment and the competence. The effectiveness of the leader is dependent upon how well they can determine the followers needs and adapt their style and behavior to meet those needs (Northouse, 2016, p. 93).
The model divides leadership styles into four categories, two of these being directive behaviors and two being supportive behaviors, like that of the style approach. The directing style is high directive-low supportive, the coaching style is high directive-high supportive, the supporting style is high supportive-low directive, and the delegating style is low supportive-low directive (PSU WC, 2019, L4, p. 13). As mentioned above, these leadership styles can be matched with the development level of followers to meet their leadership need. The development level of the subordinate is also based on two tenants; Do they have skills and/or ability to accomplish the goal? Are they willing and motivated to accomplish the goal? The answers to these questions determine where the follower is on the developmental continuum and what leadership style is required to be most successful. Development level one, or D1, the subordinate is unable but willing to accomplish the goal and is best suited by the directing style. Level D2 they are unable and unwilling and are best suited by the coaching style. Level D3 they are able but unwilling and are best suited by the supporting style. Level D4 they are both able and willing and are best suited by the delegating style of leadership (Northouse, 2016, p. 94-97). Basically, it is the leader’s responsibility to determine where the subordinate is on the developmental continuum and based on that assessment adjust their leadership style accordingly to the situation. If the leader properly makes that assessment and effectively adjusts their leadership style, there should be an effective outcome.
The situational approach to leadership can be applied to my management situation as Director of Grounds of a golf course and country club. The property is in the northeast so some of the recreation activities close in the winter. I manage a crew of eight full-time year-round employee, 10 full-time seasonal employees (8 months), and 8 mostly full-time summer employees (3 months). The year-round employees are mostly landscape and turfgrass professionals gaining career experience to eventually advance in their “green industry” careers. The seasonal employees are mostly individuals that are retired or left their career job and may or may not need the work but liked idea of working outside. The summer employees are typically college students looking to earn money over the summer break from school. These are three very different types of employees, with different levels of skills, and different levels of motivation in which the situational approach could apply.
The year-round employees are all in this field as a career choice and looking to advance their skills and their career. The more tenured of those employees have mastered their skills and are very motivated, so I am able to take a delegating approach. For example, I can explain the goal and desired outcome of a project, provide them with the necessary resources, and leave them accomplish the project. I am available if they need assistance or have questions, and to give positive reinforcement, but by and large they are responsible to accomplish the project. They enjoy the freedom and challenge of being able to manage and complete the project on their own, they take pride in the outcome, and gain satisfaction from accomplishing the project on their terms. I feel a key point here should be that they are also recognized for their effort and role in the project completion and success. The newer year-round employees are also willing and motivated but with less experience. The fact that they have less experience will require me at times to adjust to more of a directive style because they are motivated but just need some additional training to grow their knowledge, experience, and confidence. The goal being for them to move along the developmental continuum as they gain that confidence and experience.
The seasonal employees generally will not reach a level at which the delegating style of leadership would be the best approach. Many really enjoy the outdoor work and the extra income, but don’t have much experience in the golf and landscaping industry. Initially the new seasonal employees require the directive style of situational leadership. We need to spend a great deal of time and effort in training new tasks, monitoring progress, and refining skills. This is a case where there are specific ways that tasks need to be completed and verbal, visual, and hands-on training is required. The directive style is necessary in this situation. Many of the seasonal employees return year after year and then the style can be adjusted more to a supporting or delegating style based on their level of confidence and willingness to complete the tasks.
The summer employees can be a bit challenging at times to effectively place along the developmental continuum remembering for them this is a temporary position mainly to earn some money. They are generally not interested in this type of work as a career and show varying levels of ability and motivation. Initially, as with the seasonal employees, the directive approach is required to get them through the initial training of required tasks. This often can transition to the coaching style of situational leadership once they have a proficiency of the tasks to help build their motivation and commitment to improve the consistency of their results. This requires a time commitment from the supervising staff to build a person’s core work ethic and motivation level. It does have its rewards as some college students return for several summers and are given more responsibility and they also often stay in touch as they pursue their career paths in the future.
In summary, the situational leadership approach requires the leader to assess a subordinate’s experience and commitment levels and adjust their approach to best fit their developmental level. Realize that their development will change along a continuum as they gain experience and/or willingness and motivation. I used my workplace setting as an example of how this approach can apply in the field. The approach is very popular but lacks a large body of research that proves by adapting their leadership styles the subordinates will perform better, and the leaders are more effective (PSU WC, 2019, L5, p16). I know more research is needed to support this approach, but I do agree with the main theme that leaders need to be flexible and able to adapt their management styles based on the situation and the follower.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: theory and practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2019). PSYCH 485 Lesson 5: Style and Situational Approaches. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/2008237/modules/items/27074649