Situational Leadership Theory: It’s Just Common Sense

Situational Leadership Model

Situational Leadership Model

I talked last week to a friend who is about to take a leadership training program sponsored by the government entity where he works part-time. This man had had leadership training in the military, but seemed overwhelmed by the thick manual he’d been given to study before the training program. The manual had a lengthy section on “situational leadership theory.”

Although I was a manager for many years and participated in—and even taught—management training programs, I am not educated in organizational and management theory. I’d never heard of “situational leadership theory.”

So I asked my friend what it was, for two reasons. First, I wanted to know. Second, I figured he would learn the material better if he had to describe it to me than if he muddled through the manual in a vacuum.

He started talking about four quadrants and “high relationship/low relationship” and “high task/low task” situations, and how a manager should behave differently.

But of course, I thought. The best way to manage good people is to get out of their way and let them run with what they want to do. That’s all being a “low task” manager means.

The trick is to know when someone is a strong enough employee to let them run, and when they need more guidance. And the only way to do that is to build a relationship with them (be “high relationship”) and test them on little things while giving them direction (be a “high task” manager).

My friend and I worked through several examples—new employees, trusted employees, good performers, and poor performers. In each case, I asked him whether it was better to spend more time or less time in getting to know the individual, and whether it was better to be more directive or less directive in giving instructions.

He could answer the questions using just common sense. The terminology didn’t matter. He knew what to do. And so did I, despite never having heard of “situational leadership theory.”


My preferred style is S3 – Supporting

My own bias is to work on relationships in almost every situation. Most employees want their manager (and also their coworkers, peers, and even subordinate) to know them better. It takes time, but usually bears fruit.

My bias is also to be less directive with all but the newest employees. But that doesn’t always work well. I have been burned on occasion when I’ve found out that an employee took a project in a direction that I didn’t think was going to fly in the organization.

Still, I’d rather err on the side of letting employees make their own mistakes and helping them recover afterward. We’ll both learn more than if I had told them what to do every step of the way.

Management is an art, not a science. It’s judgment, not four quadrants in a grid. It’s knowing your people, not knowing what’s in some manual.

When have you found that management theories or other aspects of interpersonal relationships were really just based on common sense?



Filed under Employee Engagement, Human Resources, Leadership, Management

7 responses to “Situational Leadership Theory: It’s Just Common Sense

  1. I think the common sense element works best in every aspect of life including parenting. Experience is the best teacher.

  2. Sara,
    This Wednesday afternoon I will walk into my Principles of Management class, and all I will have is a dry erase marker. I will sit down and not say anything. Eventually, I will ask, “well, what are we going to do?” There will be silence. I will wait until somebody says, “take attendance?” I will mark that down. Someone will say, “hand out the syllabus?” I will mark that down. A couple of students will emerge who get it, and they will be off and running. Some will be uncomfortable. We will have a list constructed by the students. Then, we will follow that list.

    I do this because, to the extent possible, I want to treat the course as a business, and try to show them what I think a good manager does in a business. Also, one of my objectives is to get students in the mood to take over their own education. (Because that will happen in a few short years for them.) So your method is the same as mine, and we both will have to adjust to those who work differently.

    Incidentally, I don’t have a syllabus. That will be their first homework.

    I like your approach. It involves trusting your workers. In a few instances, your trust will be misplaced. That will cost you, but the gains from trust will be substantial. I find some students just want to be told what to do. It’s just their style. I can adapt.


    • Dane,
      Thank you for sharing your approach to preparing a syllabus (you don’t). An interesting idea. The planner in me is cringing.
      But you are absolutely right that sometimes one’s trust is misplaced, but the gains of trusting one’s employees far outweighs the occasional costs.
      I appreciate your comment.

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