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Thinking Out Loud

A Leadership Notebook: Adapting the Leader’s Behavior “Situationally”

by Michael Jinkins | May 29, 2015

Editor's note: This is the final installment of the Thinking Out Loud "Leadership Notebook" series. We hope you have enjoyed these insights into best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership. Leadership-themed blog posts are available on Louisville Seminary's website. The regular Thinking Out Loud blog will continue to post every Tuesday. Watch for more information about our next Thinking Out Loud special feature for the 2015-2016 academic year.

Situational LeadershipA pastor I know well recently contacted me to ask if we might reflect together on a problem he is facing in his church. His problem poses a classic leadership conundrum. He received feedback from some trustworthy and frustrated members of his congregation that he “needs to hold his lay leaders more accountable to do the things they are responsible for doing.” The balls they were juggling were getting dropped. Routine and sometimes important tasks were not consistently carried out by the people responsible to do so.

We explored whether or not this feedback was credible. The pastor confirmed that he thought it was and that he needed to figure out how to do a better job of “holding lay leaders more accountable.” We explored some specific cases, and he related a couple of stories, one of which is particularly illustrative of the problem.

“Emily” is exactly the sort of wise and caring person you want around the table when elders, deacons or trustees make tough decisions. She brings a wealth of experience to deliberations. She has vision, a great heart and deep faith. When discussions get tough, Emily gets calm and helps find a way through the crisis. But there’s a problem. Emily is an abysmal committee chair. She can’t keep a calendar, organize a meeting, make assignments to accomplish tasks, follow up on the tasks assigned, or any of the other basic competencies of committee leadership.

“What should I do?” asked the pastor.

It so happened that this pastor and I had discussed a resource some time back that offers real insight into just such a situation. The resource is called The Situational Leader. It was written several years ago by Dr. Paul Hersey who served as a university president, was the founder and chairman of the board of the Center for Leadership Studies, and was an active church member. He applied the insights of behavioral modification to management for years helping nonprofit organizations and for-profit companies alike perform better. The Situational Leader was originally published in 1984 and has been through several reprints and editions.

First, let me present the key Situational Leader insight, then I’ll review Hersey’s basic model, and finally, we’ll apply it very briefly to the case at hand.

The key insight of Hersey’s situational leadership is this: Any leader who always sticks with his or her most comfortable “style” of leadership (whether that leader is a take-charge, highly-directive leader, a facilitative leader, or one who operates more “hands’ off”) is dooming himself or herself to failure about three-quarters of the time. This is because the needs and readiness of followers to do what is required of them in their own leadership roles is quite diverse. An effective leader, according to Hersey, must diagnose the particular needs and readiness of individual followers and adapt his or her leadership style to fit those needs and the followers’ state of readiness.1

The model can be diagrammed more easily than explained in a paragraph, but I will leave it to you to read Hersey for yourself so you can see his excellent and easy-to-follow diagrams. (His book is short and will repay with huge dividends the time spent studying it!)

Hersey divides the readiness of followers to do what they need to do into four quadrants; then he lays out leader behaviors that correspond to these four quadrants. In quadrant 1, followers lack both motivation and competence to perform the tasks needed by the organization. In quadrant 2, followers are relatively willing, but they feel unable to do what is needed. In quadrant 3, they are able, but unwilling; and in quadrant 4, they are everybody’s dream - “able, willing and confident.” Unfortunately, most church polities seem to assume that when we are baptized God mysteriously moves us all to quadrant 4. This is not the case.

A good leader does not simply say “I’m a strong directive leader” and approach every leadership situation the same way. If he or she does this, then s/he will miss the needs and readiness of many people who otherwise might be brought along. Conversely a good leader does not simply say “I’m really just a facilitator of the group. We reflect together on what needs to be done. We collaborate on the goals and objectives of the group. But I leave it entirely in the hands of the other folks to make it happen.” Again, if the leader does this, s/he is going to miss the actual needs and level of readiness of many of the people with whom s/he works.

Instead, a good leader reflects carefully on the behaviors of the followers, analyzes how well they follow through on assigned or assumed tasks, and crafts his or her own leadership to fit the needs and level of readiness of the followers. For example, someone who just isn’t getting the job done may feel unable and be unwilling to do the job, feeling insecure about taking the risk even to try. They are likely to need “specific instruction” and be “closely supervised.” A person who feels unable but willing to do the task may need the leader to explain more fully why the task matters and what difference it will make to the organization if done well. Clarification is often needed, and this may require a higher level of collaboration. However, someone who is able, willing and thoroughly confident to do the job mostly just needs the leader to get out of the way. Almost anything the leader does will only mess things up.

As the pastor who called me described Emily’s behavior, it became clear to him that she may feel unable to do the tasks assigned, but is really willing. He was able to develop a leadership intervention strategy: He will go over with her the importance of the tasks of committee leadership, clarifying whatever needs to be clarified, inviting her to ask her questions, and making sure she understands. He will also clarify with her whether she really wants to take care of the basic tasks essential to committee leadership. Then either he will offer her opportunities to get additional training in committee leadership or help her recruit someone to complement her gifts (perhaps an able deputy who could ensure that the details of committee chairing are carried out consistently).

Hersey’s insight is pure gold. And it helps all of us to keep from absolutizing our own preferences and most comfortable styles of leadership. The organizations we lead need more options than just our favorite approaches to leadership. They need our ability to be flexible and responsive to the needs and readiness of the people with whom we serve.


1<.sup>Two small notes: 1. Hersey’s use of the term “follower” is essentially positional because each of these “followers” in relationship to the organization’s “leader” is also a leader too, working with others. While the vocabulary is somewhat limiting, the insight is expansive. 2. Obviously this insight does not imply that a leader of an organization with 150 employees or a church with 450 members needs to assess the needs and readiness of every single person. Rather, it means that the leader needs to understand well the leaders that report to him/her, other key leadership, and those who serve on the institution’s board.

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