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Situational Leadership

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

Photo by Sunyu on Unsplash

The task of the leader is to recognise the most appropriate leadership style for a given situation. Ben Horrowitz in his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things (2014) sums this up perfectly

“Peacetime and wartime management techniques can be both highly effective when employed in the right situation, but they are different.”

Horrowitz describes running a business during peacetime and gives the example where a company has a large advantage over the competition in its core market. A wartime comparison is when a company is fending off an imminent existential threat.

Whilst Horrowitz describes the most extreme situations, I really like the analogy and have used it to great effect with my coaching clients and prior to that in order to mobilize my teams.

Wartime vs Peacetime leadership activities

Everyone has a default leadership style, mine is a coaching style which focuses on learning and maximises the quality of deliverables and has a longer-term view. A coaching style can be ineffective in a crisis. Hence we need to be adaptable and flex to a more wartime setting, perhaps a pacesetting style, to deal with a train wreck or the latest fire drill.

Coaching versus telling

As well as adapting your leadership style to fit the situational context, the secondary goal is to minimise the amount of work that falls into the lower quadrant where time takes precedence over quality and learning is relegated to a poor third.

In my opinion, Winston Churchill was a great wartime leader and CEO but mediocre in peacetime. After winning re-election as his party’s leader in 1951 he was unable to lead effectively in the peacetime. I am a huge admirer of Churchill but in his last few years in power, whilst armed with incredible foresight about the Soviet menace, he did not build and invest for the future at home.

Situational awareness and adapting your leadership style is critical to your long term leadership success.


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