And that question has probably driven more research and PhD dissertations than any other issue in the field of management.
So I’m going to attempt to answer it here in less than 750 words, based on both my personal experience and a landmark study conducted almost 50 years ago by Ken Blanchard (yes, that Ken Blanchard) and Paul Hersey.
Their research, and the “Situational Leadership” model they developed was first published in 1977 in a book called Management of Organizational Behavior (now in its 9th edition, with Dewey Johnson as a third author).
I believe the Hersey-Blanchard model of leadership remains incredibly powerful and relevant today, but I haven’t seen many references to it recently, so I want to refresh your understanding of it (and mine too, for that matter).
The Situational Leadership model is simple in concept, but deeply complex in application. The logic goes like this: when a team (or a single individual) is faced with a particular task, the most important factor is how capable or experienced the team is with that task.
If a team is new to a task, it usually needs directive, structured, leadership to be successful. In contrast, if the team members are experienced and fully capable of handling the challenge, then a “hands-off” or delegating style of leadership is generally more effective.
That may seem like common sense, but the history of leadership is filled with examples of leaders who had only one dominant style and applied it to every team, in every imaginable situation.
Adjusting Leadership Style to the Situation
And the tough challenge for any leader is to determine how much, and what kind, of formal task-oriented direction is right for a given team facing a given task. Moreover, as a team gains experience it usually becomes more capable over time, so an effective leader must be able to “back off” as the team’s competence grows relative to the task.
It’s also worth remembering that backing off – releasing control and direction – is far easier, and more acceptable, than tightening up. When a leader has been relatively loose and easy going, team members usually resist and resent having increased control imposed on them (even if they need it). They typically believe, rightly or wrongly, that they have learned how to get the job done and they don’t like being told how to do something they think they have already mastered.
The Hersey-Blanchard model focuses on two key dimensions of a work situation, and then suggests four prototypical leadership styles.
The two key factors that define a leadership challenge are (1) the nature of the task; and (2) the experience, or the maturity, of the team members with that task.
A task can be routine and well-understood, or it can be problematic, require creativity, or even be a “wicked problem.”
A team may have lots of experience with a routine task, or even with confronting wicked problems. Or it could be a new team, with inexperienced members who might need basic instruction and hand-holding for even a relatively simple, routine task. The Situational Leadership model describes four levels of team maturity and mindset:
- Unable and insecure (needing handholding, reassurance, instruction, and patience)
- Unable but willing (needing direction/instruction to be successful)
- Capable but unwilling (requiring motivational leadership if not formal direction)
- Very capable and confident (calling for “hands-off” delegation)
Four Leadership Styles
The interaction of team maturity and task requirements then point towards one of four basic leadership styles:
- Directing – providing clear direction and “how-to” instruction
- Coaching – more teaching, persuading, and motivating
- Supporting – sharing in the planning conversation and focusing more on relationships than on the task itself
- Delegating – overseeing the team but staying the background; monitoring progress and offering feedback as needed
The model is often portrayed graphically like this (source: University of Phoenix):
I particularly like the suggestion of an evolution in leadership style as a team builds experience/maturity and confidence/commitment for any particular task.
The art of leadership, in my humble opinion, is being able to sense where a team’s mindset and skillset are relative to the task at hand – and then to act accordingly.
Done – in less than 750 words!
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