Teaching college students about leadership is a muddled, mangled mess. There are so many theories and types of leadership from decades of examination and research--it's an endless, but extremely important, business aspect of discussion and application.

We examine many of the styles out there, such as "level five" leadership, servant leadership, transactional versus transformational leadership, authentic leadership, charismatic leadership, and blah, blah, blah.

But one leadership concept keeps coming back to me. One theory seems to click with me.  This one way seems strategic to me. 

It's not about emulating Elon Musk and Steve Jobs or hoping to be like Mark Cuban. It's about strategy, and to me strategic thinking always starts with: a situational analysis. What is the situation, and based on that, how do we proceed?

Situational leadership theory

Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard developed the "situational leadership theory" with one thought in mind: No single leadership style is best in every situation. Leadership is contingent upon the situation.

It's a simple and very important notion. You should analyze your situation, such as the tasks that need accomplished, and the competence and the maturity of the group you are to lead, and implement a leadership style based on these factors.

Situational leadership identifies four situations with matching styles. Thus, a leader can strategically, with analysis and foresight, develop a proper style for the situation in which they are leading.

The four situations, and the style for each

This theory and the following four styles look at the readiness of the followers and recommends a leader's focus on task needs, people needs, or a combination of task and people needs.

  1. Telling Style--for low readiness followers. If the situation you are in has followers who are inexperienced, unready for tasks, have low ability or are untrained, and lack confidence, use this telling style. This telling leadership style calls for a high focus on tasks for the followers by the leader, without a high need for socio-emotional support. 

  2. Selling Style--for moderate readiness followers. In this situation the followers are somewhat ready because of a confidence to proceed, but they lack ability. The leader needs a selling style of leadership here, with a high focus on task to instill the ability in the followers, along with a high focus on people's needs-- which would help boost confidence further and help enculturation for the followers.
  3. Participating Style--for high readiness followers. In this contingency the followers are ready and capable for the task at hand, but the leader would love to get them to participate more; thus the leader style should be participating. The leader should have a high focus on people, relationships, and transformation, with less need for task.
  4. Delegating Style--for very high readiness followers. This situation is for true and total delegation.  Followers are task superior and the leader's people focus is strong, with solid interpersonal relationships--most everyone is well trained, adept at capabilities, and full nurturing and social-emotional support is in place. The leader can now delegate completely, with confidence and trust.

It makes perfect sense to me. Custom-fit your leadership style to your situation. Certainly we do not conduct business in an off-the-rack world. 

Many examples of situational leadership have been seen over the years, from 3M and Apple to General Patton and President (General) Eisenhower to legendary basketball coaches Pat Summit and John Wooden. 

So, admire Jobs. Find some tips from Mark Cuban to help you. Even emulate Elon Musk to a point. But always thoroughly consider your situation when you lead.

And just in case you're still confused, here's a video explaining the whole thing. Enjoy: