Situational Leadership and Complexity

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Andrea writes: Recently I had the opportunity to attend a workshop given by the Canadian Institute of Organizational Development (CODI) facilitated by Marilyn Laiken about Leading Teams in Change Environments. The workshop focused on Situational Leadership theory developed and published originally in the 70s by Hershey and Blanchard.

The fundamental underpinning of the theory is that there is no single best leadership style and that different situations require different adaptive leadership responses. What counts most is the ability of the leader to read the situation – including both the work to be done, and the maturity and experience of the team – and make an appropriate leadership response. The theory proposes a series of stages of development of the individual and the team, and identifies ways leaders can adjust their leadership responses to each stage. The model has endured. I asked myself why AND could it have anything to add to leadership in a complex environment?

I originally learned about Situational Leadership while developing a workshop with Dr. Raye Kass at Concordia University in Montreal. Her synthesis of what the model says about leadership was that it is “the capacity to observe and the willingness to react.”

What makes this a useful definition is that it takes the emphasis away from the leader and the style, and instead it stresses the leader’s ability to question, observe, and respond effectively. What is the context? Where is the need? What is the basis for the response I am considering? Am I ready to respond to what is going on using the best of my leadership skill?

Knowing the different stages of Situational Leadership (Telling, Selling, Participating, Delegating) and my own personal preference (Participating) is an important self-awareness skill. The leader’s requisite tools are the ability to observe, assess and diagnose the situation, react appropriately and learn. The act of leadership is based in inquiry (what is going on right now? what does the situation need from me?)

The goal of leadership in complex systems is to develop people and teams so they become self-organizing, autonomous contributors. The very act of leadership shifts from a command and control model to a dance of influence that anchors on both relationship and task. A stage theory may seem the antithesis of a complexity lens perspective – and I’m not sure that each stage is as linear and progressive as one might expect.

The theory endures because it offers new perspectives on leading in complex systems, which few leaders today can avoid. By focusing on the context, the goals, the people and their needs, Situational Leadership has something special to offer anyone trying to grow as a more effective leader in a complex adaptive system.

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