Situational Leadership vs. Strategic Leadership: What’s the Best Fit?

Arvind Mehrotra
7 min readAug 1, 2023

As workplaces and operating models evolve, so must leadership styles. However, situational leadership, a management mainstay since the 1970s, continues to be used by organisations worldwide; in the recently concluded chaos, situational leadership took over as a preferred leadership style. However, transformation and growth were driven by strategic leaders who changed their organisation’s path from a high touch delivery model to a low-touch delivery model.

What is Situational Leadership?

The situational leadership model was developed by Paul Hersey in 1969 to provide a repeatable process that aligns a leader’s behaviour to the performance needs of team members. Depending on an employee’s competency and commitment level, the leader morphs their approach accordingly. The situation may require leaders to display one of the following behaviours to influence team members — delegation, participation, selling/convincing, and simply telling the individuals to do a task.

Usually, the term strategic is not associated with situational leadership since the organisation’s larger business strategy has little to do with how the leader drives performance daily. However, experts in this style are sometimes referred to as strategic situational leaders as they can adapt their behaviour to meet employee needs and organisational goals.

How is Situational Leadership Implemented?

The basis for situational leadership is the existing relationship between a leader and followers. The leader may utilise this relationship through specific techniques to get the job done. The leader already exerts a degree of influence on team members — it is only a question of how to best influence an employee with a specific personality, skillset, and expectations. It is called the situation.

As a result, situational leaders may opt for one of the four techniques and switch between them frequently:

The telling style: The leader, through thorough communication, instruction, and conveying of experience, tells the employee what to do. Typically, there is a hierarchical and skill gap between the ladder and the follower, which is why employees can get motivated with this style. There is little two-way communication, and leaders must supervise the task closely.

The selling style: Here, the leader is actively looking to get buy-in from the employee and make them as motivated to get the job done as the leader is. In addition to telling what tasks are in hand, the leader explains why. A specific sales approach is employed to convince the employee of the task’s worthiness and do it with less supervision.

The participating style: Unlike the previous two techniques, which are leader-driven, this is a follower-driven style. The relationship between the leader and team members is closer and has less of a hierarchical element. Employees who are well equipped to do a task but have lost motivation can gain from this technique.

The delegating style: Another follower-driven style, the purpose of this approach is to nurture employees to become as proficient and empowered as the leader. The situational leader will delegate tasks and provide employees with the psychological and physical resources to do a job autonomously.

The corollary to situational leadership is the strategic leadership style that management institutions have popularised in the last few decades,

What is Strategic Leadership?

As the name suggests, strategic leadership is built around an organisation’s operational strategy and the processes, workflows, and metrics to actualise it. A strategic leader is in close cohorts with senior executives and even board-level and C-suite members. Then, they communicate these goals to different teams and team members, using various tools and metrics to guide them in the right direction.

Strategic leaders can be valuable assets as they act as a motivating force for teams in large organisations. Individuals are aware of their role in achieving the organisation’s strategic vision.

Unlike situational leaders, these individuals are not reacting to everyday situations. Instead, they communicate purpose, develop human capital, ensure ethical practices, and sustain long-term competencies. Often, these leaders will shape the organisation’s culture and determine the behaviour of situational leaders working under them.

How is Strategic Leadership Implemented?

Strategic leadership can be implemented in a variety of formats, with the primary ones as follows:

Authoritarian leadership: This type of strategic leader is significantly targets driven and imposes organisational targets on the team. The style can work well in iterative processes performed by extensive groups, where individual employee makeup does not make much difference.

Transactional leadership: Similar to the authoritarian style, transactional leaders are goal-driven. However, they use rewards and recognition as critical tools for imposing their leadership style. Top performers are widely recognised, and poor performers are penalised in this work environment.

Transformational leadership: The strategic leader may leverage the power of the organisation’s vision to influence and motivate team members. This style works best when the small team has the tools and skills to complete the job.

Servant leadership: A servant leader is aware of a team’s high level of competency, and their job is to remove any blockers from the way. Scrum masters in high-performing agile teams often practice this strategic leadership style combined with other techniques.

Wrapping Up

Today’s workplaces are incredibly dynamic and need leaders conversant in all the possible influencing techniques. While situational leadership has been the most common form for many years, strategic leaders increasingly prefer teams pursuing long-term growth. Mid-level to senior managers must be conversant with all these techniques, employing the right ones in a particular work environment and decision-making process.

However, I will talk and write about the intersection of strategic and situational leadership, which develops attractive leadership models for modern workplaces. In my understanding, I see that leaders develop styles and adopt practices which create certain leadership brands. These leadership brands are Toxic Leader, Transactional Leader, Compassionate Leader, and Visionary Leader. In my experience and understanding, I put them into four quadrants at the intersection of value (creation or exploitation) and alignment (individual or stakeholder level), leader’s actions and situations gravitate them to the adjacent areas, but they remain stagnant in the quadrant, until unless they make serious efforts and shed certain practices while adopting others.

Toxic Leadership: Once you recognise toxicity, you can take measured steps to survive and thrive in such environments. Employees who prove themselves invaluable to the team, are great problem solvers, and bring unique skills to the table tend to be immune to the adverse effects of toxic leadership. Eventually, such leaders must change course and hone leadership styles that encourage the team. Meanwhile, as an employee, focus on upskilling and network building so you can succeed in any team environment.

Transactional Leadership: Transactional leadership governance is through a well-articulated and stable set of rules. For example, the nature of reinforcements cannot suddenly change from one employee to another within the same context. The transactional leadership style thrives in an environment of clarity and stability. Employees are clear on what the expectations are from them and know the consequences of doing well on the job — or failing. The leader drives the team with rewards, incentives, verbal motivation, and other forms of positive reinforcement, or penalties, punishments, warnings, and other forms of negative reinforcement.

Visionary Leadership: In any company, visionary leadership is a prized quality. Senior managers and C-level executives are developed and coached to imbibe innovative traits, and organisations headed by such leaders tend to succeed as industry trailblazers. But that is not to say that visionary leadership does not come with its struggles. A Harvard Business Review study found that the positive effects of this leadership style can break down under certain conditions — for example, when there is limited communication or strategic misalignment. Yet, the ability to have, convey, inspire, and execute a vision is critical for an innovative enterprise. Most recognised brands today are known for their visionary leadership approaches, which sets a good worker apart from great performers.

Compassionate Leadership: Across organisations, there is a slow but sure movement away from a culture of hustle and always-on connectivity to well-being and mindful working. Leaders find themselves uniquely placed in this context. Instead of reinforcing targets and shepherding employees, they can relate to them on a 1-on-1 level and make decisions that bring out the best in a company’s people assets. That is what empathy and being an empathetic leader is all about. As a trait, it is an essential part of many leadership styles. Now, it has come to define a new way of leading teams and organisations, prioritising humans first.

It is interesting to note that leaders can gravitate to an adjacent model. However, the possibility of moving to a diagonal leadership model would be difficult, and the chance of success will be low. Essentially, a Toxic leader can change their behaviour and attitude to move either towards transactional leadership, which can be easy, or a compassionate leadership model. However, climbing up to the compassionate quadrant is possible but would require a lot of effort, brand change effort & development investments. Similarly, a visionary leader can fall in the grace of his team and become a transactional leader; however, with effort, they can develop into an empathetic leader as well.

Which leadership style have you seen most commonly implemented in your workplace? Let me know in the comments below, or email me at Arvind@AM-PMAssociates.com.

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Arvind Mehrotra

Board Advisor, Strategy, Culture Alignment and Technology Advisor