Situational leadership: change your style based on the need

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 01-05-14

Leadership is not universal. Someone being a good leader in one situation will be the wrong leader for the next situation.

My own history with Chrysler is an example of this. There is little question that Lee Iacocca saved Chrysler in the 1980s. He was a visionary, a heroic leader, a phenomenal salesman, and he saved Chrysler. It is unlikely that any other person could have achieved what he did. And then he stayed and slowly saw Chrysler back to the brink of bankruptcy. He spent more time on external endeavors, including taking his salesmanship to fix the Statue of Liberty, write books, and consider a run for President along with plenty of other political entanglements. Lee was a hero, a saver – and if something just need to be built, matured, and grow instead of being saved, it turns out he wasn’t the right guy. Or at least didn’t change who he was enough to be the right guy.

During our Leading Lean course I sometimes show a clip of Jim Belushi during one of his Cheeseburger skits, like the one found here:

If I ask you: is this a leader you would want to work for? I think we’ll all know the answer is no. And the answer would be no if I asked if this was the kind of leader you aspired to be. But if I asked: is this the right leader to run this organization? The answer is most likely yes. He fits what it needs. The organizations goals are butts in stools and fast turnover, and making no apologies for it, very low variety, cash focused, simple procedures so clear that you don’t even need to speak the language. The customers it attracts are looking for exactly what it delivers. And this leader knows exactly how to deliver on that mission. The only time they are willing to change is temporary, and under their version of a crisis: the risk of losing a sale.

The point is that different situations call for different leadership traits, and we must be skilled enough to understand the current situation and flexible enough to adapt our approach. A team that needs to slow down and be reflective may need different leadership help than a team looking for urgency in action.

Consider the need. Some leaders make the mistake of looking at a team’s needs as just that, their needs. But you most also consider their own capabilities. It is a team’s needs that they can’t deliver for themselves that matters. If you start delivering something for a team that they can do for themselves, they not only become disempowered but they consider you more of an impediment than support. A team that’s can pick themselves up doesn’t need a motivational speech and a team that know what has to be done doesn’t need direction. Assess the current state fully.

Are you the right person? Sometimes, it is up to someone else to be the right leader at that moment. Put the ego aside and engage and even follow the other person. Bill Ford did this on a grand scale when he stepped aside and brought in Alan Mulally to lead the Ford Motor Company’s transformation.

Adapt your style. Deliver what is needed at that moment. In the past year as a soccer coach, I’ve sometimes gone on hyped-up tirades at halftime, sometimes focused on lots of ethnical details, once did everything I could to keep the team distracted from some bad stuff going on around them, and once just walked away and let them just be with themselves because they were doing everything right already. No trait or skill of leadership is so powerful that it works in every situation.

Useless fact: I got the chance to meet Lee Iacocca a few years, during an event at Lehigh University honoring some of his contributions there.


  • Hi Jamie

    Good post, the reality is life is not one dimensional or for that matter one directional. To survive in life we have to often play different roles and change directions and methods. How many people still use a typewriter today? It does not mean that we have stopped typing up information, it just means we now use computers to do it, and I am sure that as the software advances eventually we will only talk to our computers and they will handle the rest.

    As a boss I have had many different types of teams under me at some point in time, no two ever required me too support them in the same way. As a boss I looked to see what problems they needed me to help them solve than provided them the help that would get them back on track. Sometimes as a boss the best thing to do if you are looking to develop them is to give them suggestions on how to find an answer for themselves, instead of spoon feeding them the answer. Other times all they really needed was for me to give them a pat on the back and my support, so they had the confidence to get the job done. And yes there actually were times I had to step in and actually help them with something, but it was rare. Just like with children you need to treat each situation as required, there is no one size fits all way of being a parent or boss, for that matter one size fits all clothing really fits next to no one well.

    A good leader has to be many different people rolled into on, and has to know which one to be in any given situation.

    Robert Drescher January 7, 2014 at 12:48 pm
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