Sharing tools and ideas for Portfolio, Program, and Project Managers

Situational Leadership

“(S)he’s a micromanager.” How many times have you heard this in the workplace? In other words, a boss who tells you the who, what, when, where and how to get something done and checks on you every five minutes to make sure it’s getting done… right. The other end of this spectrum could be referred to as “being in over your head.” This is a situation where you could use some additional support, assistance, knowledge, or guidance and get…none. In both cases the management style does not work.

This article is a very brief introduction to the subject of Situational Leadership (SL). I’ve used this method successfully in the past. There is a great deal of information available regarding SL that goes into greater detail regarding the research and methodology. I urge you to read additional material on the subject and try the methodology. As PMs (i.e. project, program, people managers) we are constantly dealing with a plethora of individuals from novices to those with very broad and deep skills and experience. SL assists in our understanding and gives us a tool to adapt to our ever-changing needs. Once familiar with the SL model you will better understand why the particular management styles described in the above examples fail, irritates, and creates low moral for those that continually experience it.


Situational Leadership is a means to understand an individual’s “readiness” for a specific task, defined as one’s:

a) capability skill level for that task and,

b) willingness to accomplish the task.

Determining an individual’s “readiness” assists the boss-manager-supervisor-coach-mom-dad (“leader” for the rest of this article) in understanding how best to approach, coach, support, and instruct the individual, group, or team (“follower” for the rest of this article) that will result in successful task completion. Each assignment or task is unique requiring a review of readiness to determine the style of leadership best suited for the specific task and situation.


The readiness of the “follower” determines how much engagement is required by the “leader”. Engagement consists of task and relationship behavior based on the following:

  1. Follower’s Readiness level – “The ability and willingness of a person to take responsibility for directing their own behavior.”  This is in context of a specific task to be performed.
  2. Leader’s Task Behavior – Based on the follower’s readiness level. A one way communication to the follower as to how much of the details of what, when, where, and how the task is to be accomplished.
    Task Behavior runs the gamut of the follower being assigned and executing the task for the first time where the Leader explains in detail as to how and when to accomplish the task (High Task Behavior). The other end of the spectrum would be the follower being an expert at the task where the Leader let’s go (essentially hands off) and fully delegates the task (Low Task Behavior).
  3. Leader’s Relationship Behavior – Two way communication with the follower to support and facilitate desired Task Behaviors.
    Relationship Behavior can be low when the follower is an expert and the leader “delegates” or low when the follower is new to the task and behavior is by communicating in one direction and “telling” the follower what to do. Relationship Behavior is high when the follower is past the mechanics of the task and the leader begins a two-way communication to explain and “sell” why the Leader wants the task completed a certain way, or when, as they become more familiar with the task, the follower begins to understand the task sufficiently to share their ideas and “participates” in the learning and development process.

Basic Concept

The model lies in a two by two matrix resulting in four levels of readiness summarized in Table 1. Along one axis, going from High to Low, is the willingness of the follower executing the task or assignment.   High willingness may mean the individual has performed the task in the past with a successful outcome or it may mean they are anxious to learn a new skill and desire to apply themselves to a new challenge. Low willingness could mean that this follower has performed this task a hundred times already and is not looking forward to doing it again or perhaps they had an earlier attempt and failed or they just are not sure they can successfully complete the task.

Along the other axis, also going from High to Low, is the follower’s capability to perform the task. High capability means the follower is knowledgeable, skilled, and competent at the task. Low capability means the follower has never done this task before or perhaps only one or a few times with mixed results.
There are four readiness levels each having a unique designation; R1, R2, R3, R4.

R1- High Willingness, Low Capability (Low)

R2- Low Willingness, Low Capability   (Moderate)

R3- Low Willingness, High Capability (Moderate)

R4- High Willingness, High Capability (High)

Each of the quadrants describes a different follower. The key to managing these four different followers is in understanding their level of readiness.

Follower Readiness

Table 1. Follower Readiness

Leadership styles, S1-S4, for managing the four readiness levels, R1-R4, are described below and can be found in Figure 1.

S1-High-task, low-relationship behavior.   Also known as “Telling” style as the leader is mainly telling the follower the what, when, where, and how of completing the task. There typically is minimal two-way communication.

S2-High-task, high-relationship behavior. Also known as “Selling” style as the leader still directs the follower but spends additional time convincing the follower as to why certain decisions were made. Two way communication is high.

S3-High-relationship, low-task behavior. Also known as “Participating” style as the follower has attained the knowledge and skill and the leader spends additional time in two-way communication while sharing decision-making.

S4-Low-relationship, low-task behavior. Also known as “Delegating” style as the follower has attained the knowledge and skills and willingness for the task and the leader hands over decision-making to the follower demonstrating trust in the follower. There typically is minimal two-way communication.

Leader Behavior

Figure 1. Leader Behavior

The Process

  1. Determine the specific task to be accomplished by the follower.
  2. Ask the capability question. Is this the first time the follower will attempt this task or is this a task that has been successfully accomplished by the follower in the past? Perhaps this is a task attempted previously by this follower that ended in failure.
  3. Ask the willingness question. Is the follower eager to tackle this new assignment or afraid of trying something new or different for fear of failure? Is this someone who has successfully completed this task a hundred times and doesn’t feel challenged?
  4. Determine the readiness level of the follower in relation to the assigned task. Determine the capability level and the willingness level on the Follower Readiness table shown in Figure 2. Note the location of the “X” on the table for this example. Marking the location for this situation will assist the leader in understanding which style will be most appropriate in assisting the follower in successfully completing this task.
  5. Draw a line from the X up into the chart until it intersects with the curved line running through the chart. Where the line intersects the curve will be the quadrant and the leadership style to use for this situation based on the styles S1-S4.
Figure 2. The Situational Leadership Model.

Figure 2. The Situational Leadership Model.

In this example follower readiness is low therefore the leadership style will be S1-High-task, low-relationship behavior meaning the leader will spend most of their time telling the following how to do the task and regularly following up to ensure adequate quality and completion. What they should not do is use an S2, S3, or S4 style.


Let’s go back to the very first paragraph and our examples. We now have a way to describe what is happening. Micromanaging results when follower readiness is R4 High Willingness, High Capability and the management style used is S1 High-task, low-relationship behavior. You can now see why the leadership style fails, “Don’t tell me how to do my job”. The follower can do the task while the leader is only getting in the way either because of control or trust issues.

In the second example follower readiness is R1 or R2 Low capability while the leadership style used is S3 or S4. This follower requires additional details on how to do the task and is not getting it because the leader is unavailable for any number of reasons.

Please explore additional material on this subject. This article is only to suggest that Situational Leadership is a good idea and could be a useful management tool. This is only a little bit of knowledge. Wisdom comes from knowing when and how to use the knowledge.



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  1. Pingback: Why Projects Fail | ALL3PM

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