Make like a chameleon – why situational leadership is key in 2024

You no doubt know of leaders who are good in a crisis. Or others who you turn to when collaboration is what’s called for. Maybe there’s a boss you’ve had who was super empathetic but didn’t get sh*t done when the stakes were high.

The best leaders though? They’re intentional about what leadership approach is called for in the moment – and then, a bit like a chameleon, they adapt their style to what’s required.

It’s not about being inauthentic. Rather, situational leadership is a bit like having a toolkit with different hammers for different nails. It’s understanding that there’s no one-size-fits-all model when it comes to leading a team. Different situations demand different responses. As do different people. As a leader, your ability to adapt is a superpower.

The ‘one-size-fits-none’ myth

We’ve all heard the saying, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” The same holds true for leadership styles. If you’re sticking to just one approach in every situation (and with everyone you lead) chances are, you’re missing the mark more often than not. The best leaders wear a few different guises.

Think of yourself as the captain of a ship. Sometimes, you need to be a navigator, charting the course and guiding your crew through stormy seas. Other times you have to be the driver, taking control of the wheel and steering the ship with authority. And then, there are moments when you become the collaborator, working side-by-side with your team to navigate uncharted waters.

Situational leadership means stepping into the different roles that the situation calls for.

So, let’s unpack the art of situational leadership and look at how you can get better at it.

First, practice emotional intelligence

The first step to practicing situational leadership is to read the room (and the situation). You need to be able to pick up on the vibe and look for the subtle cues. Tune into your team’s emotions. Are they anxious, excited, or on the burnout on-ramp?

Once you’ve looked at what is happening around you, ask yourself: what does success look like in this situation? Consider what is being required of you and the team you lead.

Your ability to use your sense making skills, to empathise and to connect emotionally sets the stage for situational leadership.

Next, work out what leadership archetype is needed for the situation. I’ve listed some of the most common or useful ones below.

The Driver

There’s a crisis. This is not the time for hand-holding or spending loads of time asking people how they’re feeling. Instead, crisis situations need you to step up, take charge, and provide clear directives. Your team needs a steady hand on the wheel, guiding them through the storm. Be decisive, communicate clearly (and often), and instil confidence.

The Collaborator

Now, let’s flip the script. Your team needs to come up with new and innovative ideas to capture an opportunity or solve a problem. Think brainstorming and creative problem-solving.  This is the moment to be the collaborator. Step back a bit and allow space for the creativity to flow. Your role in this situation is more about facilitating than directing. Foster an environment where every voice is heard, and creativity is celebrated. It’s not about being the expert; but more about unleashing the expertise within your team.

The Coach

Imagine you’re on the sidelines, and your team is on the field facing challenges. This is where your coaching skills come into play. Your job is to equip your team with the skills and strategies they need to overcome those obstacles. Listen actively, provide feedback, and empower your team members to take ownership of their roles. You’re not just a leader in this situation; you’re a coach, nurturing growth and potential.

Adapting your leadership style is about being the leader your team needs in any given moment. Whether it’s steering through a crisis, fostering innovation, or coaching for growth, your ability to read the situation and respond accordingly will enhance both your own effectiveness and that of your team.

In 2024, let’s channel the chameleon when it comes to our leadership practice. Let’s be the navigators, drivers, and collaborators our teams need, when they need it. Because in the dynamic world of leadership, adaptability isn’t a nice to have, it’s table stakes.

3 Comments

  1. Dennis S. Vogel on February 9, 2024 at 9:53 am

    Suzi,
    Chameleons blend into backgrounds to evade detection by predators & prey. People might feel like prey if they’re closely supervised. If people feel abandoned without access, discomfort & uncertainty can increase.
    Somehow chameleons detect colors & adjust. It’s important to determine what people need & adjust accordingly.
    Business owners can be visibly in charge until workers or customers are confidently fulfilling opportunities or remedies. Availability can be accomplished by blending enough to be unobtrusive but observant & check in when necessary. You don’t have to only catch people’s mistakes. You can assure them with unsolicited approval.
    People are comforted to hear, “Call me if you have questions.” Later, people might wonder if their concern warrants a call.
    Business owners can check in with customers or workers for clarifications, example: ‘It’s easy to think we understand perfectly until we start. How can I refine any instructions?’
    All participants are responsible for clarity, but formulating questions while listening to information requires different brain sectors simultaneously. Some facts are missed while aforementioned facts are integrated with remembered information. Human minds strive to remember by connecting input with what was put in before. This requires mental juggling & sorting while more objects are tossed over.

  2. Dennis Vogel on February 2, 2024 at 12:59 pm

    Suzi,
    Chameleons blend into backgrounds to evade detection by predators & prey. People might feel like prey if they’re closely supervised. If people feel abandoned without access, discomfort & uncertainty can increase.
    Somehow chameleons detect colors & adjust. It’s important to determine what people need & adjust accordingly.
    Business owners can be visibly in charge until workers or customers are confidently fulfilling opportunities or remedies. Availability can be accomplished by blending enough to be unobtrusive but observant & check in when necessary. You don’t have to only catch people’s mistakes. You can assure them with unsolicited approval.
    People are comforted to hear, “Call me if you have questions.” Later, people might wonder if their concern warrants a call.
    Business owners can check in with customers or workers for clarifications, example: ‘It’s easy to think we understand perfectly until we start. How can I refine any instructions?’
    All participants are responsible for clarity, but formulating questions while listening to information requires different brain sectors simultaneously. Some facts are missed while aforementioned facts are integrated with remembered information. Human minds strive to remember by connecting input with what was put in before. This requires mental juggling & sorting while more objects are tossed over.

  3. Chris Gladstone on January 24, 2024 at 4:08 pm

    Great message Suzy. Right on!

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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