Flex Time

Situational Circumstances

Situational leadership works well whether you're a corporate executive or a start-up entrepreneur, according to Ron Campbell, president of the Center for Leadership Studies. "[In our seminars,] we'll get the guy who's a manager at Big O Tires down the road or a printing shop with 10 people, and we'll have that person sit side by side with the VP of human resources at a Fortune 500 company," says Campbell.

The situational model works best when dealing with employees who don't already have their minds made up to be uncooperative, Campbell says. Bone feels situational leadership is most useful when it comes to new employees. "That's where you get the opportunity to exercise all the different styles the most," he says. "With employees you've worked with for 10 years, most of the time you're using a style of just delegating."

Situational leadership isn't the optimal tool for all occasions, either. It functions well, for instance, in businesses where people are the key ingredients. It's less effective and appropriate in situations where the driving factors are processes or technology. "In an oil refinery, you can't decide that one day you want to turn off this pipe and turn on another one," says Johnson. "There's a process you have to follow."

Situational leadership may also be inappropriate in organizations that have deeper underlying problems. Campbell says the center discourages firms whose practices and policies hinder leadership from using its programs. "You're not going to teach leadership skills that nullify the effect of dumb management," he says.

Even under the best circumstances, you can go wrong trying to follow the situational model. The main risk is making an incorrect diagnosis of the follower's readiness level. This typically happens when a leader tries to move too quickly or on the basis of insufficient or incorrect information.

Most risks can be avoided by keeping to the model's focus on followers more than leaders, says Campbell. "Don't worry about the leader's behavior as much as diagnosing where the follower is," he advises. "Be follower-driven."

Entrepreneurs who want to learn more about situational leadership have a rich array of books, videos, audiotapes, seminars and even an interactive CD-ROM from which to choose. Perhaps because it is so widespread, situational training is inexpensive compared to many other leadership programs. A two-day seminar at Campbell's center costs $595. Many colleges and other training sources offer courses for $100 a day or less.

Situational leaders themselves say taking a training course is a good educational value, with broad applications in many areas of life. "What situational leadership does for you is make you assess all situations better, not only in your role as a leader, manager and supervisor," says Trottier, "but as a human being."

Mark Henricks is an Austin, Texas, writer who specializes in small-business topics.

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This article was originally published in the November 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Flex Time.

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