Truly effective leaders know that you need multiple strings to your bow if you want to get the best from your team. Professor JONATHAN PASSMORE of Henley Business School explains the basics of the situational management style.

Almost every manager is now expected to be able to use coaching as part of their management toolkit. But is coaching the only management skill a good manager needs?
In reality most managers need a variety of different styles to be the best leader. Warren Bennis has been credited with first recognising that this: ‚if the only tool a manager has is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail‘.
People are complex, dynamic and, different It is thus not surprising that leaders need subtle, adaptive ways, to communicate, engage, influence, develop, inform and direct those who work with them both in their team and also their wider network.
This idea of varying one’s leadership style, is known as situational leadership, and was popularised by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in the 1980‘s. They suggested that effective leaders should operate using four styles, varying the style depending on the competence and confidence of their team members, to offer them ‘telling’, ‘selling’, ‘participating’ and ‘delegating’ styles and vary these styles based on the level of competence and commitment of their team member. While highly competent and highly motivated individuals could be managed through delegation, the low-competence and low-motivation individuals needed the ‘selling’ style.
The model subsequently spawned a host of different situational leadership models. One of the most popular, was developed by Daniel Goleman. This offers an updated perspective for leaders on the circumstances in which six different approaches may be helpful. The model was based on over 2000 interviews with leaders and lead to a six styles model.

  • The directive leadership style may be viewed as traditional leadership, giving instructions and telling people what to do. This can achieve results and is highly effective in times of a crisis – when the fire bell rings, you need to direct people to leave the building. However, the directive style should be used with caution. Overuse, or use as an everyday style has a toxic effect in the modern workplace, and is likely to lead to increased conflict and employee turnover.
  • The pace-setting leadership style motivates the team by setting goals. While goals motivate, the drive for continuous improvement can also have a toxic effect in the long run. Employees need periods of time to consolidate; without such periods, turnover or absenteeism can rise as employees look for a break from the constant demands for higher, faster, stronger.
  • The visionary leadership style aims to engage and motivate team members through communicating a compelling vision for the future. What’s important is that the vision fits with the values and beliefs of the team, and is communicated in a language and style that the team can relate to. It’s important for each team member to understand how their work fits into the larger vision for the organisation. When giving feedback, the main criterion is how the work contributes towards achieving that vision.
  • The affiliative leadership style aims to keep employees happy, creating harmony and increasing loyalty by building strong emotional bonds. The affiliative leader does this by taking their direct reports out for a meal or a drink to see how they’re doing, and takes time out to celebrate group accomplishments.
  • The democratic leadership style aims to increase responsibility by letting team members have a say in decisions that affect their goals and how they do their work. By listening to employees’ concerns, the democratic leader learns what to do to keep morale high.
  • The coaching leadership style focuses on developing each employee to their full potential by allowing team members to play to their strengths. The coaching leader encourages employees to establish long-term development goals and helps them progress towards these goals through regular developmental conversations.

As we have argued so effective leaders use all six styles, while better leaders use the last four in the series (visionary, affiliative, democratic and coaching) significantly more than the first two (pace-setting and directive). In fact, the evidence from multiple studies, suggests that the best leader,particularly those working in complex dynamic environments most frequently turn to a coaching style to get the best from their teams. These leaders know they cant do it all, and the best way to enable and develop their people is to encourage them to develop the mindset, confidence and the problem solving skills needed to make their own decisions.
These leaders are more likely to trust their people, but they know and understand themself. They are likely to have highly developed self-awareness skills and the confidence to allow the reins of control to be loosened, liberating their teams within a framework or series of guiding principles. The evidence suggests that such style of leadership are likely to lead to higher levels of employee satisfaction, retention and team performance, and we all want these for our team.


Text: Dr. Jonathan Passmore