The Fluidity of Leadership, Tupperware Disasters, and 7 Year Old Employees

This morning as I was walked through Walmart I overhead a conversation with a shift manager and some of his direct reports.   I couldn’t help but notice the less than enthusiastic employees stand around listening while the manager barked orders at them.  To say that they were disengaged in what was being told to them would be a vast understatement.

I am currently working on an emerging leader program for a client of mine that in the end would help to develop prospective leaders within the organization for future succession plans. It just so happens that as part of the curriculum I have been working on most recently covers situational leadership. 

Situational leadership first coined by Paul Hershey and the famous management guru Ken Blanchard is best summed up in my opinion with “measuring the need and choosing the appropriate leadership style.”

As designated leaders we need to appreciate that leadership is an art, it is fluid, it ranges in style and intensity.   Assuming just one style and demanding others follow accordingly is not leadership at all.  This style of authority is based on manipulation, not influence, and the measuring stick of leadership is your degree of influence.

Leaders must realize that their style in the moment must be based on the performance readiness of those that they lead.  As is leadership an ever-changing and malleable act, performance readiness shifts with the tides of each individual person and task at hand.  People bring different levels of motivation and ability for different tasks.  As the leader the recognition of that which our people draw energy from both positively and negatively is not only important, it is vital to harboring happy and productive employees and empowering and productive workplace cultures.

So what is Situational Leadership?

  1. Directing- This type of leadership toward employees is most relevant when working with new employees and/or when an employee is learning a new task. This sounds something similar to “Sean, what I’d like for you to do is…..” and then you provide the steps to complete the given task and a timeline.  This type of situational leadership is typically a one sided conversation.
  2. Coaching- Coaching lends itself to more dialogue with employees.  These employees need slightly more guidance to complete a task.  This type of leadership intervention is for those employees that not only need to learn something but also want to learn something.  It sounds something like, “Sean  what I’d like you to do is…..” and would then provide a chance for input “What do you think about that?”
  3. Supporting – this mode is for employees that are competent in performing a task but lack the confidence to do it on their own. Supporting gives less direction than the previous two modes and it sounds like this, “Sean here’s what we need to do. How do you think it should be done?  How can I help you get this done?”
  4. Delegating- This level of leadership intervention is reserved for those employees that possess a great deal of motivation, ability, and confidence toward their position and/or task. As the leader it would sound similar to “Sean, here’s what we need done.  I know you have performed great with similar projects before.  If there’s something I can help with, please let me know.  If not, let me know when it’s complete.”

One of my favorite movies growing up was the basketball movie Hoosiers with Gene Hackman playing the role of a high school basketball coach.  In the final scene of the movie Hackman demonstrates all 4 components of situational leadership. (watch the video below to see if you can recognize them)

While we put the topic of situational leadership in the frame of a professional setting let me leave you with this example as it demonstrates this type of leadership in a more personal and family setting.

If your home is anything like mine it’s likely to have a kitchen cabinet with 550 pieces of tupperware all of them currently without a match. There are lids and bowls everywhere and every time the cabinet is opened they come falling out in a plastic avalanche. In our house, we have a “7 year old employee” named Eden that I felt organizing this cabinet would be a great task for her to tackle.

As simple as this task seems had we just told her to get it done her results would have been poor. With situational leadership in mind (and unbeknownst to her) we worked through the previously mentioned pieces until task completion and a new level of “employee” competency had been achieved.

We first directed and outlined step-by-step what we wanted performed with the Tupperware and told her when would like it completed. After she was aware of the outcome and demonstrated to us that she had basic competency to match the pieces up we left her to complete the task.

Along the way we provided coaching as needed when she had questions regarding pieces that might have been close to matching or tough to match up and wouldn’t. At this point there were a lot of questions on our part such as “what do you think?” or “why do you think that is?”

Throughout the Tupperware task there were many times that Eden grew frustrated with certain pieces that she couldn’t figure out or pieces she couldn’t physically get together. It was at this point that we supported her along the way with more questions and providing help when she lacked the physical strength and dexterity to join a few of the pieces together.

The picture shows the finished product of the Tupperware cabinet but what it does not reflect is Eden’s pride in a finished job, her new confidence in her ability to do the job, and that we now have an “employee” that can handle the future Tupperware tasks in the future. She is capable, motivated, and confident that she can perform the task – we can now delegate this task to her going forward.


Happy Friday,

Sean Z. Callahan


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