Businesswoman leading business presentation
ATD Blog

4 Leadership Styles That Enable Leaders to Drive Success and Navigate Change

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

If last year were a movie, no one would have seen it—not just because movie theaters (and many other businesses) were shut down, but because no one would have believed the plot. The sheer number of unprecedented events we experienced last year was, in fact, unprecedented. Close your eyes for a moment. You can almost hear the “audience” groaning and saying, “Yeah, right! There is no way (insert almost any occurrence from last year) is going to happen!” People would have walked out of the theater before the ice in their soda began to melt.

Unexpectedly, last year did happen. Our world was turned upside down. As leaders, it is our jobs to manage through change. While change can be as simple as a new process, it can also be as complicated as a global pandemic. Regardless of the severity, leaders need to be ready to adapt their leadership style to provide themselves with the highest probability of success in every situation they encounter.

Situational Leadership® is a common sense, contingency-based leadership model that features four patterns of leadership behavior. A leader determines which style to use after assessing an individual’s ability and willingness to perform a specific task. No matter how many plot twists 2020 threw, Situational Leaders managed their teams by using one of these leadership styles.

Situational Leadership® Style #1 (S1): Telling or directive leadership style intended to “create movement” in the short term. S1 is a high-probability approach with followers who have limited (if any) experience or skill performing the task in question and (for whatever reason) are either insecure or unmotivated.

For example, an employee doesn’t know the first thing about preparing their report for virtual discussion on their first Zoom meeting needs preparation. The manager schedules a one-on-one practice session and walks the employee through what needs to be done and how it needs to be accomplished. The employee then takes control while the manager closely supervises and provides feedback on the dry run.

Situational Leadership® Style #2 (S2): Selling or explaining leadership style intended to create buy-in and enhance understanding. S2 is a high-probability approach with followers who have limited (if any) experience performing the task but exhibit confidence, enthusiasm, and high motivation when it comes to taking action and learning something new.


For example, an employee is noticeably energized about the prospect of learning how to convert material that used to be covered in a live, classroom format to a digital, virtual format. The manager outlines the process and reviews why the transition is necessary and how it will provide increased options moving forward. The manager then details what the employee needs do and how they need to proceed. The manager also reinforces the enthusiasm and commitment and takes time to answer any questions the employee may have.

Situational Leadership® Style #3 (S3): Participative or collaborative leadership style leveraged to create alignment. S3 is a high-probability approach with followers who are developing and have demonstrated task proficiency but still have some degree of trepidation about performing it on their own. Additionally, S3 is a match with employees who have demonstrated mastery of a task but have clearly lost commitment or motivation to continue performing it at a sustained and acceptable level.

For example, an employee who can ordinarily be counted upon to provide detailed performance objectives during the weekly virtual standup meeting has been uncharacteristically vague and comparatively unprepared. The manager would use specific observations as a catalyst in engaging the employee in a discussion of the performance slippage and what the employee will do to correct it.


Situational Leadership® Style #4 (S4): Empowering or delegating leadership style used to enhance task mastery and further increase trust. S4 is a high-probability match with employees who have significant experience performing the task at or above expectation, in combination with a level of intrinsic motivation that drives their ongoing commitment to excellence.

For example, an employee has demonstrated the ability to effectively work from home while meeting or exceeding all work-related expectations. The manager might ask the employee to mentor someone else on the team who is struggling.

All of this is to say: Change is inevitable. While no one could have predicted what 2020 was going to bring us, we can assume that more (but hopefully less drastic) change is always on the horizon. What differentiates a Situational Leader is their ability to quickly identify the parameters of a task, assess the individual performing it, and employ a leadership style that provides the highest probability of success.

About the Author

Dr. Sam Shriver is the executive vice president of research and development at The Center for Leadership Studies (CLS). In that capacity, he serves as a senior thought leader, subject matter expert and author. Sam has over 35 years of direct experience with Situational Leadership®, organizational behavior and leadership development.

He holds a B.S. from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, an M.B.A. from Pepperdine University and earned his Ed.D. in training and development from North Carolina State University. Sam has designed and developed over 200 custom leadership and coaching programs and has been formally recognized by Bersin, Brandon Hall and the Association for Talent Development (ATD), in that regard. He has also authored numerous training and development white papers, journal articles, blogs in addition to the book and audio series, “From Coach to Coach.” He has also co-authored a best-selling service quality improvement program, “Frontline Service.”

Be the first to comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.