No one wants to be known as a “never there” leader — or worse, a micromanager. As a result, most managers tend to adopt a “middle of the road” leadership style that focuses a little bit on direction and a little bit on support. That might seem like a good idea on the surface, but in reality, that style only matches a team member’s needs 25% of the time.
The Ken Blanchard Companies’ situational approach to leading others (SLII®) has endured for over 30 years because it is based on managers tailoring their
leadership style to the needs of their direct reports. There are four basic development levels in the Blanchard SLII® leadership model: Enthusiastic Beginner, Disillusioned Learner, Capable but Cautious Contributor, and Self-Reliant Achiever.
Can you remember when you first started to learn to ride a bicycle? You were so excited sometimes that you couldn’t even sleep at night. You were a classic Enthusiastic Beginner who needed direction.
Remember the first time you took a fall on your bike? Now you had reached the Disillusioned Learner stage, and you needed coaching.
Once you were able to ride your bike with increasing confidence, you could take your bike out for a spin without adult supervision. At this point, you were a Capable but Cautious Contributor.
Finally, you reached the stage where you could ride without even thinking about it. You were truly a Self-Reliant Achiever.
Matching leadership style to development level
Let’s try an example from the work world. Suppose you recently hired a 22-year-old salesperson who doesn’t have much real selling experience. He is enthusiastic and ready to learn, despite his lack of skills. He is curious, hopeful, optimistic, and excited — a perfect example of an Enthusiastic Beginner.
You provide specific direction and closely supervise his sales performance, planning and prioritising what he needs to accomplish. While some may consider this over-supervising, teaching and showing him what to do is the appropriate approach for this Enthusiastic Beginner.
Disillusioned Learners need a Coaching style
After a few weeks of sales training, your new recruit understands the basics of selling but is finding the job harder to master than he had expected. You notice that his energy is waning and he’s looking a bit discouraged. While he knows more about sales than he did as a beginner, he’s sometimes overwhelmed and frustrated. A person at this stage is a Disillusioned Learner.
What’s needed now is a Coaching leadership style, which is high on both direction and support. You continue to direct and closely monitor your trainee’s sales efforts, but now you engage in more two-way conversations, going back and forth between your advice and his questions and suggestions. You also provide a lot of praise and support at this stage, because you want to build his confidence, restore his commitment, and encourage his initiative.
Capable but Cautious Contributors need a Supporting style
Fast forward a couple of months. Now the young man you hired knows the day-to-day responsibilities of his sales position and has acquired some good sales skills. Yet he still has some self-doubt and questions whether he can sell well on his own, without your help or the support of other colleagues.
Although you tell him he’s competent and knows what he’s doing, he is not so sure. He has a good grasp of the sales process and is working well with clients, but he’s hesitant to be out there completely on his own. He may become self-critical or even reluctant to trust his own instincts. At this stage, he is a
Capable but Cautious Contributor whose commitment to selling fluctuates between excitement and insecurity.
This is when a Supporting leadership style is called for. You encourage and praise, but only rarely direct his efforts. The Supporting style is more collaborative; feedback is now a give-and-take process between the two of you. You help him reach his own sales solutions by asking questions that expand his thinking and encourage risk taking.
Self-Reliant Achievers need a Delegating style
As time passes, your former new salesperson becomes a key player on your team. Not only has he mastered sales tasks and skills, but he’s also taken on challenging clients and has been successful with them. He anticipates problems and is ready with solutions. At this stage, he is a Self-Reliant Achiever in the sales part of his job. You can count on him to hit his sales goals.
For a person at this level of development, a Delegating leadership style is best. In this situation, it is appropriate to turn over responsibility for day-to-day decision making and problem solving to him by letting him run his own territory. Your job now is to empower him by allowing and trusting him to act independently.
Bring out the best in others
A situational approach to leading others provides a comprehensive and practical method of creating open communication and developing self-reliance among direct reports. Managers who can adjust their style bring out the best in team members no matter their development level. The result is an organisation where employee competence is developed, commitment is gained, and talented individuals are retained.