Next-Level Situational Leadership

This post is one of a series of blog posts exploring specific leadership competencies and how they fit in the various stages of the organizational life-cycle, organizational culture, and change management efforts. Your comments and suggestions are welcome to guide the areas of focus. When Hersey and Blanchard rolled out their Situational Leadership Theory in the 1970s, their premise was that strong leaders will adapt their approach to the situation in order to lead one follower. They proposed adjusting leadership styles based on the task at-hand, the relationship between the leader and the follower, and the competence and motivation of the follower. Just as Hersey and Blanchard proposed a situational leadership style approach for individuals, I propose a situational leadership approach for teams and organizations. When leading multiple followers, situational leadership needs to move to the next level, taking into consideration three critical factors:
  1. Organizational Life-Cycle
  2. Organizational Culture
  3. Change Management

Organizational Life-Cycle

As an organization matures, leaders need to possess certain attributes in order to move the organization through the different levels of growth. For example, a visionary and innovator is needed during the start-up phase, but through the growth and plateauing stages time that same leader will need to evolve into a strong decision maker and an active listener. Leaders who lack the requisite attributes at different stages of an organization’s growth often find themselves to be ineffective or even replaced. We have all heard of a company founder being replaced once the company has established itself.

Organizational Culture

Quinn and Rohrbaugh (1981) introduced the idea of a competing values framework in which organizations have four basic values that are in tension with one another: collaborate, create, control, and compete. One or two of those values will be higher in a given organization compared to a different organization. The leader’s skills and characteristics should align with the culture of the organization to maximize effectiveness. Imagine a super-driven, competitive leader who is highly disciplined and achievement oriented. Now imagine inserting that same leader into an organization with a highly collaborative and relationally intensive culture. Such a combination is a recipe for disaster – not because the leader is a “bad leader” or the organizational culture is unhealthy; rather, because there was not a match and the leader could not adjust his or her style and/or the organizational culture could not change to align with the leader’s style.

Change Management

When an organization is in the midst of a significant change initiative, it requires a certain set of attributes from a leader more so than at times of stability. Those skills include inspiring people to action, effective communication, and caring for people. If a leader cannot align his or her style to meet the unique needs of an organization during a major change effort, the change may fail and the leader may be viewed as ineffective.


Effective leadership is part art, part science. It is the ability of leaders to adapt, change, and align to the world in which they find themselves and the ability to identify and apply the required attributes to a given situation. Those attributes must evolve along the organization’s life-cycle, culture, and change management climate. Leaders should be self-aware of what is needed at different stages, but it is also the responsibility of the individuals who develop them (consultants, coaches, L&D professionals, etc.) to identify where the leaders excel and where there is an opportunity for development. References Hersey, P. and Blanchard, K. (1977). Management of Organizational Behavior (3rd ed). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Quinn, R. E. and Rohrbaugh, J. (1981). A competing values approach to organizational effectiveness. Public Productivity Review, 5(2). 122-140.

When NOT to Solve a Problem

Many leaders and consultants pride themselves on being problem solvers. In fact, many job profiles name problem solving as a required skill. But is there a scenario in your organization when you should not try to solve a problem? The answer to that is “Yes!”

Problems vs. Tensions

Now that I have your attention, let me backtrack on that answer a little. Many people attempt to solve “problems” that are not really problems. Sometimes we mislabel a tension as a problem, which gets us into trouble because you can’t solve a tension. A problem, by definition, has a solution, or at least a possibility of a solution. A tension, on the other hand, is something that will never get resolved. Instead, it needs to be managed. Leaders and consultants get themselves into trouble when they spend time and energy trying to solve a problem rather than manage a tension. Barry Johnson provides a very detailed and excellent description of the differences in his book Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems. He calls tensions, polarities.

Cultural Values in Tension

Let me give you an example that affects most organizations. Cultural values are often in tension with one another in any given organization. Cameron and Quinn discuss four major cultural values: Collaborating, Competing, Creating, Controlling. Every organization has and needs these values to a certain degree; yet, it is clear to see how they can be in tension. For example, the values of collaboration and competition sometimes oppose one another. How a leader manages that tension is a critical issue when it comes to developing a healthy organizational culture. Imagine a highly collaborative organization that has a department leader who prizes competition as a value. She might see the competition/collaboration tension as a problem to be solved, desiring to overcome the collaboration with good competition, but such an approach would be a disaster. If she tries to solve the “too much relationship and not enough healthy competition problem,” she will not only fail, she will also do damage to the climate of the entire organization. On the other hand, attempting to manage the tension more effectively could lead to a more effective balance of the two values, improving the organizational climate and performance.

Managing Tensions

The ability to effectively manage tensions in an organization is a great skill for leaders and consultants to have. Here are three tips for developing that skill. 1) Learn to recognize the difference between tensions and problems. Problems are temporary and have possible solutions. Tensions are usually more permanent and can’t be “solved.” Problems have pretty clear upside and downside components. Each side of a tension has both upside and downside elements. Going back to our example, one upside of collaboration is people developing friendships and enjoying working together. A downside of that value may be that people are unwilling to point out poor performance. A downside of the competition value could be co-workers undermining each other’s efforts, whereas an upside could be that it spurs everyone to perform at a higher level. 2) Develop a common language. As with many other areas of organizational dynamics, quality shared language can perpetuate healthy culture. Carefully define and use phrases like “problem solving” and “managing tensions” throughout the organization. Language around values (which is often ground zero of tension management) should also be very clear so that everyone knows what positive and negative examples of each value look like. Don’t forget to define what too much of a good thing can be as well. That’s the point at which a positive value becomes toxic. 3) Get clarity on the right balance for your organization. Every organization has a unique balance of the competing values named above. Do you know what your current state is? Do you know what your desired balance is? There are tools available that can help you answer those questions. It is worth the investment of time and money to gain clarity. Doing so will help you devise strategies to ensure your best chance for organizational health.

Want to learn how to find and achieve the right balance of cultural values in your organization?

Attend “Tuggs” interactive lunch and learn on Thursday, Feb 18 from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. CultureWorkshopGraphic CultureWorkshopGraphic About Tuggs Tuggs has over 20 years experience leading and developing people and organizations across a variety of industry sectors. His practical experience, coupled with his research expertise in cutting-edge learning theory and performance management, uniquely positions him to aid organizations in diagnosing performance gaps and opportunities, as well as in designing, developing, and delivering custom performance solutions. He holds an earned Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership with a Human Resource Development concentration. Mark is an experienced public speaker, learning facilitator, and researcher.