The situational approach is constructed around the idea that followers move forward and backward along the developmental continuum, which represents the relative competence and commitment of followers. For leaders to be effective, it is essential that they determine where followers are on the developmental continuum and adapt their leadership styles to directly match their followers’ development levels.
In a given situation, the first task for a leader is to determine the nature of the situation. Questions such as the following must be addressed: What goal are followers being asked to achieve? How complex is the goal? Are the followers sufficiently skilled to accomplish the goal? Do they have the desire to complete the job once they start it? Answers to these questions will help leaders to identify correctly the specific development level at which their followers are functioning. For example, new followers who are very excited but lack understanding of job requirements would be identified as D1-level followers. Conversely, seasoned followers with proven abilities and great devotion to an organization would be identified as functioning at the D4 level.
Having identified the correct development level, the second task for the leader is to adapt his or her style to the prescribed leadership style represented in the SLII® model. There is a one-to-one relationship between the development level of followers (D1, D2, etc.) and the leader’s style (S1, S2, etc.). For example, if followers are at the first level of development, D1, the leader needs to adopt a high directive–low supportive leadership style (S1, or directing). If followers are more advanced and at the second development level, D2, the leader needs to adopt a high directive–high supportive leadership style (S2, or coaching). For each level of development, there is a specific style of leadership that the leader should adopt.
An example of this would be Rene Martinez, who owns a house painting business. Rene specializes in restoration of old homes and over 30 years has acquired extensive knowledge of the specialized abilities required including understanding old construction, painting materials and techniques, plaster repair, carpentry, and window glazing. Rene has three employees: Ashley, who has worked for him for seven years and whom he trained from the beginning of her career; Levi, who worked for a commercial painter for four years before being hired by Rene two years ago; and Anton, who is just starting out.
Because of Ashley’s years of experience and training, Rene would classify her as primarily D3. She is very competent, but still seeks Rene’s insight on some tasks. She is completely comfortable prepping surfaces for painting and directing the others, but has some reluctance to taking on jobs that involve carpentry. Depending on the work he assigns Ashley, Rene moves between S3 (supporting) and S4 (delegating) leadership behaviors.
When it comes to painting, Levi is a developed follower needing little direction or support from Rene. But Levi has to be trained in many other aspects of home restoration, making him a D1 or D2 in those skills. Levi is a quick learner, and Rene finds he only needs to be shown or told how to do something once before he is able to complete it easily. In most situations, Rene uses an S2 (coaching) leadership behavior with Levi. If the goal is more complicated and requires detailed training, Rene moves back into the S1 (directing) behavior with Levi.
Anton is completely new to this field, developing his skills but at the D1 level. What he lacks in experience he more than makes up for in energy. He is always willing to jump in and do whatever he’s asked to do. He is not as careful as he needs to be, however, often neglecting the proper prepping techniques and cleanup about which Rene is a stickler. Rene finds that not only he, but also Ashley, uses an S1 (directing) behavior with Anton. Because Levi is also fairly new, he finds it difficult to be directive with Anton, but likes to give him help when he seems unsure of himself, falling into the S3 (supporting) behavior.
This example illustrates how followers can move back and forth along the development continuum, requiring leaders to be flexible in their leadership behavior. Followers may move from one development level to another rather quickly over a short period (e.g., a day or a week), or more slowly on goals that proceed over much longer periods of time (e.g., a month). Leaders cannot use the same style in all contexts; rather, they need to adapt their style to followers and their unique situations. Unlike the trait approach, which emphasizes that leaders have a fixed style, the situational approach demands that leaders demonstrate a high degree of flexibility.
With the growing cross-cultural and technical influences on our society, it appears that the need for leaders to be flexible in their leadership style is increasingly important. Recent studies have examined situational leadership in different cultural and workplace contexts. In a study of situational leadership and air traffic control employees, Arvidsson, Johansson, Ek, and Akselsson (2007) assessed leaders in different contexts and found that the leader’s style should change in different group and individual situations. In addition, they found that the most frequently used leadership style was high supportive–low directive and the most seldom-used style was high directive–low supportive. In another study, Larsson and Vinberg (2010), using a case study approach, found that successful leaders use a relation orientation as a base but include along with it a structure orientation and a change orientation.