I don’t know if you’re familiar with the concept of situational leadership, but if you’re not, you should really read about it. Situational leadership is a leadership theory developed by Paul Hershey and Ken Blanchard which basically states that there is no perfect leadership style, but that a leader must adapt his style to the maturity and motivation of the person (or group) they’re trying to lead. I’ve used situational leadership time and again in youth ministry and with great results.

This week I want to share my experiences and some advice in a series of posts on how you can use situational leadership in youth ministry. Today we’ll focus on the theory of situational leadership, which we will discuss in more detail in the rest of the week.

In this theory the words ‘leader’ and ‘follower’ are being used, you can translate this into your own situation. The follower may be a volunteer, a teen you’re trying to get to do something, a coworker, etc. It can also be a group, for instance a committee organizing an event, or your small group leaders. Also note that I’m using the male form, but the follower can obviously also be a female 🙂

Hershey and Blanchard have come up with four different types of leadership:

Telling/directing: the leader gives instructions and tells someone what to so, and how and when to do it. It’s a one-way communication with no involvement from the follower. They call this high task-oriented, low relationship-oriented.

Selling/coaching: the leader is still giving detailed instructions, but is also explaining the why and asking for input and ideas, trying to get the follower to support the decision and the process. The leader is investing in the relationship, therefore this style is high task-oriented, high relationship-oriented.

Participating/supporting: the leader makes the decision together with the other person (or group) and the details are more left up to the other person. This means it’s low task-oriented and still high relationship-oriented.

Delegating: the leader is still involved in the decision making process, but the responsibility has been transferred to the follower, who decides when and how to involve the leader. This style is low task-oriented and low relationship-oriented.

For someone who is enthusiastic and competent, the directive style can be really demotivating. For someone who is enthusiastic and competent, the directive style can be really demotivating.

The point of situational leadership is, that none of these styles is superior, they’re each valuable, but for different types of followers. If you have a very motivated volunteer who’s a veteran in youth ministry for instance, he’s going to get frustrated real fast if you start using the ‘telling’ style. He doesn’t need to be told, he knows what needs to be done, he just needs you to ask him. For each type of follower, there is a suitable style.

You can categorize the follower (and remember: this can also apply to a group) by looking at his motivation (also called commitment) and his competence. Motivation is about the willingness, the enthusiasm, the support the follower has for your vision, the process, and the job at hand. Competence is about the knowledge and skills someone has, do they know everything they need to know to get the job done and do they have the necessary skills?

For each category of follower, there’s the corresponding leadership style. They key concept of this theory is therefore that the leader has to adapt his style according to the competence and motivation of the follower. That’s why it’s called situational leadership, because the way you lead is dependent on the situation.

The possible combinations of motivation and competence and leadership styles lead to the following possibilities:

Low commitment, low competence: in short unwilling and unable. Use the directive style.

High commitment, low competence: someone who wants to, but lacks the knowledge and skills. Use the coaching style and teach him what he needs to know.

Low commitment, high competence: someone who has the skills, but lacks the confidence or the motivation. Use the Supporting style.

High commitment, high competence: someone who is willing and able, I’d say the perfect follower! Use the Delegating style.

This is the theory of situational leadership in a nutshell. The rest of this week, we’ll discuss each of the four styles in more detail and I’ll give some examples from real life to make it more practical. Like I said, I’ve found the concept of situational leadership a very effective tool in youth ministry and I hope that after this week I’ll have convinced you of the same!

In the meantime, do share your insights in the comments. Have you ever used the concept of situational leadership in youth ministry? How did you like it?