Situational Leadership


Fire chiefs have to balance many things in a day: the budget, personnel, injuries, direct reports, political issues, and anything else that hits their inbox. As a leader of the organization, can you use situational leadership skills when dealing with every person you encounter? To be an effective and a successful leader, you need to tailor your leadership style to fit various personalities.

Created by Dr. Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, the Situational Leadership Model is a theory of business leadership that promotes the benefits of combining a range of managerial skills to work with employees within the same organization. It opposes the more traditional view of the fire chief or executive as someone who uses the same leadership skills across an entire organization. Frankly, no matter where they work, such leaders will not last very long in an organization.

Hersey uses a theory in which a boss is capable of dealing with a wide range of employees, creating a more innovative organization. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It presumes there is no single “best” approach to leadership; rather, effective leadership is situational. So the most successful leaders are those who adapt their leadership styles to a variety of personalities in the organization. Other factors in choosing a leadership style include the individual employees themselves and how well the leader knows their background, personality, education, and experience.

Situational Leadership: The Four Styles

Hersey identified the four styles of situational leadership as follows:

Telling. In this style, a leader will specifically instruct subordinates what to do and how to do it.

Selling. The leader still provides information and direction in this style, but there’s also more two-way communication with subordinates. Leaders “sell” their message to get employees onboard, persuading them to work toward the common goal.

Participating. With participation, leaders can focus more on relationships and less on direction. In doing so, the situational leadership manager works closely with the team or a specific person and shares decision-making responsibilities.

Delegating. Although the leader will still monitor tasks and organizational progress, he will pass much of the responsibility for executing and completing the established goals onto the individual subordinates, committees, or work groups.

Although this theory makes sense intuitively, many still do not feel the research shows that the theory actually works. Given the wide level of variance in these factors, choices surrounding leadership are highly subjective in regard to the person, committee, or group that’s influenced.

Let’s dive into the different styles a little further and see how they might apply to a leader’s work situation, possibly yours. As fire chiefs, we typically have direct supervision over command staff who vary in age, experience, education, background, and professional goals. Throughout the workweek, you interact with those personnel, sometimes several times. How do you apply your leadership style with them?

Does one of the subordinates who reports directly to you need instruction such that you have to tell him exactly what you want done? This could be someone newly promoted to your command staff or someone you may have inherited. If newly promoted, that person may be trying to learn the new position. To assist this member, you direct him in how you want projects completed or situations handled based on your experience. Or you may have to drive someone out of his comfort zone by creating enough urgency to prompt action. Although this does not allow for much mentoring and coaching, it’s sometimes necessary to help make this member more successful. These types of subordinates may take up a lot of your time; eventually, you may have to decide whether a person will stay within your command staff.

Selling is not my favorite word because I am not a salesperson and probably couldn’t sell ice to a warm polar bear. However, I do strive to convince members of the organization to accept and embrace the direction in which we are trying to move the organization. Fostering buy-in and acceptance together require the boss to sell or persuade them that the change is needed. When your direct subordinate fits into such a category, that member may not have yet accepted the change and could be stuck in his old “We’ve always done it that way” attitude. As the boss, you need to use this “selling” skill to help your employee understand why the change is needed.

As part of that, it is important to make sure you include these four subsections in the change communication: recognizing the need for it, understanding the change, accepting it, and committing to it. This helps the direct report clearly see the vision that you are laying out. Certainly, there are times when this works very well, and there are times when it doesn’t. In the latter part of the scenario, you have to make a decision on where this person fits into your command staff. Is there an opportunity to put this person on another seat on the bus?

Participating is certainly the easiest of the styles to work with. I hope that your entire executive staff or command staff is full of these employees. They are typically your high performers who have all the right characteristics – education, experience, and personality. With this style, you are providing more mentorship and assigning them opportunities so they can grow professionally and bring incredible value to the organization.

In my experience, these employees have several other traits that a good boss will find valuable. One that I feel is very important is emotional intelligence. In a 1998 study, David McClelland found that executives with a higher level of emotional intelligence capabilities outperformed their peers with equal skills. This ultimately led to greater company success. Moreover, Daniel Goleman also found that emotional intelligence plays an increasingly important role in executive leadership and the overall success of the organization. I encourage you to add emotional intelligence testing into your promotional processes.

Delegating can certainly be a win-win for the boss and the employee. This is usually a person in a management or leadership position who has shown he is a strong performer and needs a project to help boost his confidence. This can certainly be used with someone you are mentoring or trying to develop. However, you have to make sure it is the right project for the right person. You want to set up the person you are delegating for success. The best way to create this environment is to ask yourself these important questions before delegating:

  • Does the task provide an opportunity to grow and develop another person’s skills?
  • Do you have enough time to delegate the job effectively? As the leader of the organization, do you have the time to assist with any questions or concerns that undoubtedly will come up? You will need time for frequent check-in or progress reports to ensure that the project is moving along smoothly.
  • Is this a task that I should delegate? Is this a task that may have a possible political issue associated with it, or is the project critical for the long-term success of the organization? If you answer yes, then this project will ultimately need your attention.

As a boss, you should be acutely aware of the style areas in which your direct reports fall. There is a difference between productivity and employee development. The first two styles (telling and selling) are focused on accomplishing the task and productivity. The other two styles (participating and delegating) involve employees you are trying to develop for future growth in the organization. Being able to use your situational leadership skills allows you to custom tailor a development program to elicit the highest productivity from each employee or group and make for a happier and more productive organization.


Hersey, P and Blanchard, KH. (1969). Management of Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Goleman, D. (1998). Working with Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

Goleman, D. (1998). “What Makes a Leader?” Harvard Business Review, November-December.

Goleman, D. (2000). “Leadership That Gets Results.” Harvard Business Review, March-April.

PAUL LUIZZI, chief of the Goodyear (AZ) Fire Department since 2013, has also served as deputy city manager, deputy chief, and battalion chief. He has more than 29 years of fire and emergency medical services experience in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Arizona. Luizzi received a designation as a chief fire officer and is a certified public manager. He has an MBA from Franklin Pierce University and a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Roger Williams University.

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