In previous posts we’ve talked about two major camps of leadership theorists: those who believe leadership is all about a handful of universal traits, and those who believe it’s all about a handful of different leadership styles.
Both of these approaches clearly have merit. After all, there are certain traits that effective leaders seem to share, and yet, experience shows us that leadership is not a “one size fits all” proposition.
There’s a key element in leadership, however, which neither of these theories really address: what role does the situation or context play in leadership?
Put another way: in what ways is leadership dependent upon context?
Situational theories attempt to avoid the pitfalls of both trait and style theories by taking an environmentally-based rather than an individually-based approach to leadership.
According to John Hemphill’s book Situational Factors in Leadership, “what an individual actually does when acting as a leader is in large part dependent upon characteristics of the situation in which he functions." This approach makes the assumption that leadership will look different depending on what the situation requires, and that no one approach will work effectively in all environments. Situational theories likewise hold that there is no one optimal profile of a leader.
Intuitively, this makes sense. After all, the kind of leadership it takes to organize a fund-drive for a seriously ill coworker isn’t the same type of leadership called for when a house is burning and people are trapped inside. In each situation, the situational theory holds, the type of leadership we get is less dependent on the quirks of the individual than on the type of leadership that’s required.
Situational theory does have its limits, though. In a strict sense, the type of leader that emerges in specific situations can be analyzed and perhaps even classified, but as far as actually getting a handle on how people become leaders – and why some people become leaders in certain situations and others don’t – the theory doesn’t have much to offer.
The situational theory of leadership is probably most useful as a means of looking back at history and gaining insight on the rise of certain leaders – e.g., why Winston Churchill emerged so effectively as a leader forGreat Britainduring the crisis of World War II. (Hint: a whole lot of experience and charisma didn’t hurt.) But what if the right leader hadn’t emerged?
However, because the type of leadership called for in each specific situation can’t really be anticipated ahead of time, the same kind of situational theory couldn’t have predicted the need for a Churchill’s type of leadership in Great Britain before he came to power. This presents serious practical shortcomings (except for historians, of course!).
Still, the situational theory of leadership raises some important questions worth thinking about.
To what degree is your ability to lead based on the context you’re operating in? For instance – are you more effective as a leader when you’re working with people in the midst of a crisis, or more so when things are fairly steady from day to day?
Do you work better in situations where the methods are clearly defined, or ones where you’re free to improvise? Can you think of others who work better in the opposite context?
Situational theory isn’t the final answer (in later posts I’ll share what is!), but it does serve to help us appreciate the complexity of leadership.