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The 1959 classic film Ben-Hur is frequently cited as one of the best movies of all time (watch it if you haven’t).
At one point before the epic chariot race scene, the Sheikh introduces Charlton Heston’s character Judah Ben-Hur to the four horses he’ll be racing. The Sheikh knows these horses very well, and he comments on each one. This horse is the slowest but can run all day without tiring; This next horse has lots of experience; this other horse is the swiftest but must be steady; This one is tired right now and needs sleep.
I saw this when I was a child and never forgot it. Ben-Hur was not supposed to win that chariot race, but because he placed the horses in the right way and in the right spot, he beat the more powerful Roman chariot.
That is situational leadership in a nutshell. You have to know how to place your horses if you want to succeed.
Related: 3 Leadership Lessons I Learned From the Movie Gung Ho & Why They Still Apply 36 Years Later
What is situational leadership and why is it vital?
Situational leadership is about adapting your style to the development level of each team member based on their skills, confidence and motivation. In essence, we’re talking high direction versus low direction, high feedback versus low feedback across four different methods: coaching, supporting, delegating and directing.
Different team members have different needs from their leaders, and if you want the team to thrive it helps to recognize this and put it into practice. Some environments or industries may require a degree of rigidity; However, in most cases, a good leader knows when to step back or when to provide additional input.
This requires insightful flexibility, discipline and adaptability, and it’s one of the secrets to motivating your people. It’s also how you grow as a leader.
Related: To Maximize Team Results, Manage the Whole Employee
Assessing your feedback loops
Feedback loops are a perfect example of situational leadership in action.
Look at sales environments, for instance. One of the worst things you can do for a high-achieving, experienced seller is overmanage them — it’s counterproductive and demotivating. When it makes sense, you have to let these high performers do their thing and, hopefully, sit back and watch the magic.
In my experience, a lot of top performers will do anything they can to avoid checking in with the manager. And if the results are there, they often think, “Why should I check in?” While it is true that you must keep an eye on all team members, ensuring they are on strategy and contributing positively to team goals, try to point your high performers in the right direction and let them run with low direction and feedback.
It’s important to note that not every high performer works like that. A lot of experienced performers need and want to be overmanaged in some areas. They thrive on constant feedback and reassurance, almost to the point where it might feel unnecessary. They need to know they are doing a good job, delivering or exceeding the company’s expectations, and, in some cases, that their jobs are safe.
For example, I’ve seen senior managers, who always end a conversation by saying things like: “How am I doing? Is there anything I could do better?” And these are stellar superstars always asking for that feedback. You’ll also find great managers or team members who don’t seek that feedback, but it is a safe bet they need and want it.
If you’re not careful, you can turn promising team members into poor employees by not giving them that feedback. You’ve got to give them something to do better. You can’t say “you’re doing great, there’s nothing you can do better.” That’ll work for a while, but then they’ll think you just want to placate them or, in the worst case, that you’re not truly interested in their development. You have to respond to these individuals with low direction and high feedback.
And then you have those who are not performing well but do not seek out feedback. Don’t let that situation pass — you have to give them high direction and high feedback. And even then, they have 1,000 questions about that. The situational leader will readily pick up on fixed versus open mindsets, which is a huge advantage if you want your team to thrive.
All of these feedback situations are different and require adaptability on the part of the leader if you want to get the most out of your team. This is the beautiful nuance of situational leadership.
Related: Empowering Team Members Can Be a Disaster If You Don’t Do This
Situational leadership for the younger workforce and new hires
People view today’s young workforce in different ways. Some believe they have more power and entitlement than ever. Others point out an increased focus on work-life balance.
Whatever the case, the principles of situational leadership transcend generations. Everybody wants to know they’re doing a good job and everybody desires clarity.
As with any new or young team member, you’ve got to make sure they’re trained correctly because people will pick up bad habits in a millisecond. With so many distractions, younger workers may need even more attention to detail both in their training and development
For new team members try high feedback and high direction when first starting. Or if you’re the new hire coming in, what are your own first 30, 60 or 90 days going to look like? How are you going to onboard yourself? Assuming you have a well-developed onboarding process (and you better), is there anything else you need? What can I do better to help you? That’s your own situational leadership.
People want to be a part of dynamic teams and they need the right amount of freedom, support, or clarity to do great work, depending on where they’re at in the development cycle. No matter the experience level, situational leadership is how you help your team members grow, thrive, and become more of an asset to the company and to themselves.
If you want to win this chariot race, you need to know how to treat your horses and where to place them.