How to Pick the Right Leadership Style

situational leadership styles
Photo by riciardus from Pexels

Good leaders change their approach based on the situation

The rope snaked out in front of me, linking me to my three climbing buddies. I could see each one, in turn, slowly progressing up the ridge. The problem was that they were getting harder to see. The lead climber was beginning to face into the mist as she scaled higher up the peak. It was getting darker too. Not a good sign.

We had started our Alpine climb in the sunshine but had been scrambling up the ridge for hours. While we had been edging up the rock, ominous clouds were forming on the far side of the mountain. Now, as we neared the peak, we were ambushed.

When you look at a cloud from afar it is a giant cotton ball, majestically suspended in the air, silent and ethereal. But climb into a Cumulonimbus and the experience is very different. Clouds become loud, scary and very tangible.

Within seconds of summiting, we were in a gale and had to huddle together to communicate. Rain and hail started to pummel us and, just when we thought things could not get any worse, lightning struck a nearby peak. The air crackled and spat. We were in trouble.

We had conquered the climb, but the mountain was reminding us that it did not consider itself subdued as a result. It was time to beat a hasty retreat. But the strangest thing had happened. The person who had been leading all the way up the mountain just froze. When the thunder sounded, they just stood there, wide-eyed, and did not say anything. Instead, for some reason, everyone was looking at me.

Fight, Flight or Freeze

The fight, flight or freeze response is a natural psychological reaction to a threat. It is hardwired in for good reason. As with our cousins in the animal kingdom, this response can often save our lives.

But it does not always work, and we can all react differently. The leader had frozen, but when leading, you cannot afford to just react. You must think too. You have to engage in the decision space, the opportunity that lies between stimulus and response.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Victor Frankl

In our case, we actually did need to flee, but we also needed to go together and safely. This would require leadership.

Something within me grasped all of this, even if just as at a subconscious decision-making level. And so, I had started taking command. I shouted my hasty plan as we gripped the rock and tasked the team to sort their kit quickly. I looked everyone in the eye, made sure we were good, then led the way off the peak and down the mountain.

Within an hour we were out of danger. Within two we were back in beautiful sunshine. No one thought that what had happened within our team was in any way strange. We trusted each other, we shared roles and responsibility. But what had just happened?

The situational leadership model and how it can help

To be a good leader you need to know how to vary your leadership style depending upon the circumstances. Leading in a crisis requires a different approach to managing everyday circumstances.

On that day I was climbing with an experienced team. But when managing someone inexperienced they will require more support than other team members.

Therefore, as a leader, you need to adapt your style accordingly. This is called situational leadership. Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard developed the most well-known model for situational leadership. This model helps to show the most appropriate form of leadership, depending upon the nature of the task and the competency and commitment of the team. In simple terms it breaks down into four key leadership styles; directivedelegatingsupporting and coaching.

“We can’t always control what happens in our lives — things will go well, things will go poorly — but what we can control is our response to those events.” 

Kenneth Blanchard


Directing is telling people what to do. This is usually used for enthusiastic novices or when in a crisis. This command style is suitable for critical problems.

When things went wrong on the mountain this was the approach I had to adopt. This is certainly not my normal and preferred way of working. In my experience, if a leader uses this style the whole time or out of context then it can be overbearing, condescending or both.

“When placed in command, take charge.”

Norman Schwarzkopf


Delegating is giving over whole tasks to people who are experienced and able to take responsibility. This is a more hands-off leadership approach used with competent team members.

On the mountain, as soon as I had taken command, I started to delegate tasks. I did have a competent team; they were just in shock and the previous leader was exhausted. As soon as I gave out tasks the team started to break out of the stupor. Their experience broke through as they went into action and became themselves again.

“Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere as long as the policy you’ve decided upon is being carried out.”

Ronald Reagan


This style suits when there is a high level of trust in the team and individuals can manage themselves independently. But the leader employing this style has higher participation than in pure delegation, by providing moral support, encouraging and communicating proactively.

For most of the climb, we had been in this situation. The leader knew that we could manage ourselves, but she had worked hard to support the team. This was the right approach but meant she was very tired when the storm broke.

“A leader is great not because of his or her power, but because of his or her ability to empower others.”

John Maxwell


In this context, coaching involves selling the task to the individual and helping them grow to take on more responsibility. This works particularly well with individuals who may have lost confidence in what they need to do.

I had to use this approach with the person who had been leading. We had previously relied on her energy and enthusiasm up until we reached the summit. They were now exhausted, a little shell-shocked and probably embarrassed that they had frozen. I was able to share small tasks and responsibilities with her as we started to enact the plan. In this way, she quickly recovered her confidence and came alive again.

“A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader; a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.” 

Eleanor Roosevelt

Team member development and maturity levels

On my climb that day we were all of a similar experience and so picking the right style for the situation was the most important thing. But as well as the leadership styles we also need to consider the development levels that relate to the maturity and capability of the team members. These progress from the low end of maturity and development (for example, a new worker who has just joined the firm), to the expert level, where the person is highly capable to deal with the task.

It is important to remember that someone could be very experienced in some areas but, faced with a new task, they could find themselves out of their depth. Equally, the new joiner might have expertise that long-term team members are lacking. Therefore, as a manager, it is important to think about someone’s ability to do the specific task and how to lead them in that situation rather than just assume a default approach based on the time in a given job.

This applies no matter how senior we get. I have worked with entrepreneur CEOs who are incredibly experienced and gifted but who have required coaching support as their roles and organisations have evolved. It is an important lesson in humility for all leaders as well as team members. It does not matter how capable we are (or think we are), there will always be times where we are learners and need people to support us.

To be a leader is to be flexible in style

We all have our preferred leadership style. For me, I prefer a more non-directive approach to leading. I like to put trust in my team and support them to achieve the result rather than just telling them what to do. But I can’t always lead that way.

The best leaders are not stuck in one mode of management all the time. Fortunately, the situational leadership model can help us identify the times when we need to adapt our approach. It might be the external circumstances that prompt the change, or it could be the experience level of a team member; the important thing is to be aware of the changes in your situation so you are ready to adapt as a leader.

“Effective leaders need to be flexible, and must adapt themselves according to the situation.”

Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard

Think about your team and their tasks today. As a manager, do you need to direct, delegate, support, or coach them through their next piece of work?

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