Here is a pop quiz: CEO A tells his employees exactly what they need to do and how to do it, and checks in to make sure they did it right. CEO B delegates every task and expects his employees to figure out how to accomplish them on their own. Who is more likely to be successful?
If you picked CEO B, I am sorry to say, you got this one wrong. Don’t be too hard on yourself though, it was a trick question. In fact, both our hypothetical CEOs—and the hypothetical companies relying on them—are headed for stormy waters. The truth is that neither approach is always right.
One of the most common mistakes I see new CEOs make is trying to apply a single, rigid leadership style to every scenario. Employees are not interchangeable cogs in some corporate machine. They are human beings who will grow and change over the course of their careers. The best leadership style then is the appropriate one for that employee, in that situation. Effective leaders adapt to what they encounter and apply the right approach at the right time.
Understanding Situational Leadership
I have been an avid student of executive leadership throughout my career. As an individual contributor who learned how to influence without authority, as an executive who brought multiple startups to scale, and as an investor in entrepreneurs with diverse backgrounds, I’ve learned that when it comes to leading, there is no “one-size-fits-all.”
I have seen many CEOs who think leadership means always being out front cheering, encouraging employees to follow. That is not necessarily leadership. In fact, that style can quickly wear thin. Effective leaders take a more nuanced approach along the lines defined by Ken Blanchard, along with Paul Hersey and Dewey Johnson, in their seminal work Management of Organizational Behavior. Blanchard refers to this as “Situational Leadership,” and in my career, I have tried to employ my own version of it to adapt to the specific circumstances at hand.
To appreciate why leadership must be “situational,” we need to recognize that most leadership does not involve addressing a crowded boardroom. Often, the most important leadership is personal, between leader and subordinate. An effective leader analyzes the situation to understand what that subordinate needs, evaluating along two axes: competence and motivation.
Situational Leadership addresses employees across these four quadrants, each representing a mix of competence and motivation at a specific time. By understanding how employees progress along these axes, a leader can tailor his or her leadership style to provide the most effective support for each employee at each stage of their journey.
This style hearkens back to CEO A in the example above. Here, a leader tells the employee what to do, how to do it, and has them report back. In general, all CEOs use the Directive style at certain times, such as during a crisis. It is also appropriate, however, when working with someone who is new to the company.
New employees typically fall in the upper-left quadrant: they are high on motivation but low on competence. This does not mean they are incompetent, just that they are new to the job. In some young startups, they may be new to the professional world entirely. At this point, “they don’t know what they don’t know.”
A highly motivated employee who is unaware of just how much he still needs to learn can be a recipe for disaster. An effective leader then will take this person under their wing and say, “Listen, I am going to tell you what to do, how to do it, and I need you to report back to me.” Critically though, you need to set the expectation that this mode of leadership is time-bound. You are doing this temporarily to help set them up to succeed.
As a person progresses in a new job, they often move to the bottom-left quadrant. They are still learning, so their competence is still a work in progress. At the same time, they are realizing the job is harder than they thought it was. In a sense, they now “know what they don’t know.” Their motivation can begin to wane.
Here, an effective leader adopts a Supportive style of leadership. You make the decision, but you involve the employee in the process. You ask for their input, make them feel respected and valued, and help build up their confidence.
Most employees eventually move to the bottom-right quadrant. They are more knowledgeable in their role, but they now have a different problem: they don’t realize just how competent they have become. In other words, they “don’t know what they know.”
Here, an effective leader flips the script from Supportive to Consultative Leadership. Now, you let the employee know you are here to offer input, but you trust them to make the decision.
Finally, if you have done your job well, the employee enters the fourth and final quadrant. They are highly competent and highly motivated. They “know what they know” and are ready to put it to work. Now, you can safely employ the leadership style of CEO B above: Delegative Leadership. You can present this employee with a problem and trust them to figure out how to solve it.
Even here, you need to make sure this person knows you are not abandoning them. You are treating them this way because you believe they are a superstar—ready for the next challenge.
Situational Leadership in Action
To understand the value of Situational Leadership, let me share a story from one of my early jobs, back in 1996, leading the development team at Healtheon/WebMD. At that time, I had hired a young developer, Theron.. Theron was young and, initially, diffident and reserved. He was so self-conscious, if I asked him a question in a large meeting, he would visibly blush.
Back then, Theron was stuck in those first and second quadrants. He was inexperienced and at times, a bit unsure of himself. He was also arguably my most productive engineer. I made it my mission to help Theron realize his fullest potential. As he found his feet, I applied Supportive and then Consultative leadership to help build up his confidence and trust in himself. The effort paid off.
One day, Theron approached me and said, “Kittu, we have a problem. I don’t think our system will scale.” My heart sank. We had two months before our first major release, and if Theron was right, we were in deep trouble. As team leader, I was accountable. I called in my tech leads—seasoned engineers with years of experience—and told them what Theron had said. They dismissed it as nonsense. I asked them to go spend some time reviewing his concerns. Two hours later, they returned looking ashen. Theron was right. We had a big problem.
All of a sudden, our team was in crisis. Theron said, “Kittu, give me two weeks. I’ll create a clone of our code, and I’ll work on it myself in the evenings and rearchitect it.” My tech leads thought I was nuts for even considering that risk, but I decided to let Theron show us all what he could do. Less than two weeks later, he rearchitected the core components of the platform that let the applications fully scale.
I set up a meeting to have him demonstrate the new system to the entire engineering team. Thirty people spontaneously rose up to give Theron a standing ovation! It was a proud moment for Theron. It was a deeply satisfying moment for me too.
Lessons of Situational Leadership
I give Theron all the credit for saving our release—and saving my hide. It took a lot of courage for Theron to stand up to more experienced engineers and tell them they had missed something important. I don’t know if he would have been able to do it when he was in that first or second quadrant—much less have faith in his own ability to solve the problem. But I would like to believe I played a role in his evolution and helped him reach his potential by using the right leadership style at the right time, and building his trust and confidence.
“Trust” is the key word. Applied correctly, Situational Leadership creates a bond with your employee, so they trust that you are in their corner. As they grow, they learn to trust themselves. Eventually, they can fly as high as their talent and drive can take them. Often, there is a fine line between failure and success. Confidence is that secret ingredient that can help one cross that line.
If you can be a flexible leader, you will be a more effective one. And if you need more evidence, here is an addendum: After Theron saved our release, I told him that if I ever launched a startup, I wanted him to be my first hire. Fate had other plans. In fact, it was Theron who co-founded a startup—and recruited me to be CEO! That startup became Neoteris, the company that took my own career to the next level.