By Barry Bouwsema
“Leadership is a series of actions, not a position. Leaders are teachers, mentors, developers of human potential.” —Jim Clemmer
In situational leadership, four leadership styles are used when managing a team, each corresponding to the four stages of team development. Each leader management style is based on the degree of direction and support the team requires in each stage. A leader must adjust his/her style to provide what the team cannot provide for itself at a particular stage. The leader’s key goal is to move the team through the stages of the team development until it reaches the stage where it can perform independently. If a setback occurs at any stage, the leader must revert to the previous leadership style to assist the team in resolving the problem. When using situational leadership, keep in mind that there is no “one best way” to influence others. Rather, any leadership behavior’s effectiveness depends on the readiness of the person the leader is attempting to influence.
Factors affecting situational decisions include the followers’ motivation and capability, which in turn is affected by the particular situation’s factors. The relationship between followers and the leader also affects leader behavior as much as it does follower behavior, since trust is a key concept in the leader-follower relationship.
The following diagram depicts the amount of support and direction that the leader should give to the worker at each stage, depending on the workers level of competence.
Source: ‘Situational Leadership’ (see below)
Using this situational leadership diagram, depicted in quadrant S1 (telling), the fire officer makes the decisions, providing clear and specific instruction. If subordinates are unable or unwilling to perform a task, specific direction and close supervision are needed. At this point, the worker has a low level of competence but a high level of commitment or desire (D1). The fire officer must tell the firefighter what to do and where to perform the various tasks. An example of this leadership style would be the careful monitoring of the probationary firefighter who has yet to develop the needed skills to function independently.
In quadrant S2 (selling), a coaching leadership style is effective when the subordinates are willing, but somewhat unable to carry out their task (D2) because of a lack of confidence or skill development. This coaching style provides both task and relationship leader behaviors. This style is most effective with subordinates who are still unable to perform the task, but are eager to do it; for example, junior firefighters who have a base knowledge, but require more experience and time-on-task. This style encourages some two-way communication between the officer and firefighter to help the firefighter build his confidence in performing that task. Constructive feedback encourages growth at this point.
In quadrant S3 (participating), a supporting style of leadership works best when fire crews perform the required tasks. This moderate level of follower supportive behavior requires the leader to maintain two-way communication and to encourage and support the skills the followers have developed. The firefighter has a moderate level of competence at this point, with a varying level of commitment (D3). When applying this leadership style, the fire officer primarily works alongside the crew as a participant instead of supervising. The mentoring of a new officer by a veteran officer is a prime example of this leadership style.
Finally, in quadrant S4 (delegating), the firefighters are able, willing, and confident to perform their tasks. A delegating style involves few leader tasks or relationship behaviors because subordinates are empowered to make decisions. They decide how and when to do things based on minimum input from the fire officer. A fire crew led by a seasoned veteran needs little supervision from the officer since the task is completed by firefighters that are motivated and competent (D4).
At each step of the of the situational leadership model, communication is crucial. Another key concept when applying this leadership model is to properly identify which stage of readiness the follower is presently exhibiting. Using the incorrect leadership styles, such as allowing a rookie firefighter too much freedom or supervising a senior firefighter too closely, will create a problem. Fire officers should be able to apply all four leadership styles and adjust their approach to leadership depending on the readiness of the firefighter.
Clemmer, J. (2003). The Leader’s Digest. Toronto: TCG Press.
Situational Leadership. Retrieved June 19, 2007, from www.situational.com.
Barry Bouwsema, a 21-year veteran of the fire service, is a fire officer and paramedic with the Strathcona County Emergency Services in Alberta, Canada.