7 Levels of Leadership: How “Situational Leadership Theory” Helps You Become a More Effective Leader

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4 min

Written by: Tobias Günther

What’s better? If you, as a leader, make a decision — or if you let your team make it? It’s a trick question (for which I instantly apologize ;-) because it depends! On the situation, on your team, and on yourself…

The best leader isn’t a “servant leader” or an “agile leader” or a “democratic leader”. The best leader is the one that can pick the right leadership tool for the situation at hand.

Leadership Happens on a Spectrum

How to involve their team is one of the most important — and, at the same time, tricky —  questions for leaders.

It’s obviously a stupid idea to do everything yourself (because you wouldn’t need a team in that case). But the other end of the spectrum — not involving yourself at all — might also not be an optimal solution (because you wouldn’t need a leader in that case).

The million-dollar question, then, is what the right level of involvement really is?!?

We’ve already established that the answer can only be “it depends”. And I’m going to elaborate on this soft-as-butter answer in a minute, so don’t worry…

But before that, I think it’s important to emphasize what “it depends” really means: it means that leadership happens on a spectrum. There are extreme ends, like we described above: either doing everything yourself or becoming completely invisible to your team. And we’re best off avoiding these.

But between those extremes, there’s a whole world of possibility for us as leaders.

Enter “Situational Leadership Theory”

A model that helps navigate this “spectrum” was developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, and later refined by Jurgen Appelo.

It’s called “Situational Leadership Theory”. And it helps leaders decide how deeply they want to involve themselves in decisions and tasks.

Let’s talk briefly about the 7 levels it defines:

  • Level 1: Tell 👉 You as the leader makes the decision.
  • Level 2: Sell 👉 You make the decision, but you aim to gain commitment from the team.
  • Level 3: Consult 👉 You invite and weigh input from your colleagues before coming to a decision. But it’s you who makes the final decision.
  • Level 4: Agree 👉 You invite your colleagues to join in a discussion and to reach consensus as a group. Your voice is equal to the others.
  • Level 5: Advise 👉 You attempt to influence your colleagues by telling them what your opinion is. But ultimately, you leave it up to them to decide.
  • Level 6: Inquire 👉 You let the team decide. If possible (though not strictly necessary) they explain their decision to you afterwards.
  • Level 7: Delegate 👉 You leave it entirely up to the team to deal with the matter.

One reason why this model is so valuable is that it makes us aware of this spectrum in the first place!

All of the “levels” described here can be valid options, depending on the situation and the people involved.

It’s important to keep this in mind — so that you have the full range of leadership “tools” available in your tool belt.

Where on That Spectrum Should You Operate?

Let’s briefly revisit the “extremes” for a moment.

On the one side of the spectrum lies a very prescriptive, commanding, possibly even dictatorial style of leadership. It’s obvious that this is not the best way to lead a team; especially if you want to build a modern, people-first company culture.

On the other side, we could discuss every tiny detail with the whole team. This doesn’t work either: we’d get lost in philosophical questions and a myriad of individual opinions all the time. Our processes would become slow and exhausting.

It sometimes surprises leaders to hear that this second approach - although it sounds so open, collaborative, and positive - can have its downsides, too.

I experienced this firsthand in my own teams. At one point, for example, I noticed our team having trouble with our internal communication. The “inclusive leader” that I thought I was, I asked the team what they needed… But in this situation, it totally overwhelmed them!
The situation only got better when I took the time to think about the problem and came back with a couple of suggestions.

A Middle Course as Default

The above example illustrates that it’s not always the best option to shoot straight for “Level 7”. I had overwhelmed my team with this approach; a “Level 3” type of involvement — where I put in the work of thinking through the situation and came back with a suggestion — proved to be much more helpful.

When we teach this concept in Building Better Teams, we offer two rules of thumb. When approaching a situation where you’re unsure about your own involvement as a leader…

  1. …start from the “higher end” of the spectrum: Generally speaking, we should aim for more fives, sixes, and sevens and fewer ones, twos, and threes. Start your consideration at the upper end of the scale and move down if you feel it’s necessary: “Could a 7 work in this particular case? Too much? How about a 6 or a 5?
  2. …make more “suggestions”: It’s obvious that barking orders and trying to impose your will on the team isn’t going to work. But many leaders forget that there’s a middle course: offer more “suggestions” to your team. If you have a topic in front of you that you’re competent in and that’s critical to the organization, it’s absolutely okay if you involve yourself. But instead of then presenting your team with new facts and rules, you can offer your thoughts as a suggestion — and invite your colleagues to give their opinions, feedback, and ideas.

Learn to Play the Full Spectrum

If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” Abraham Maslow’s famous quote, quite obviously, is applicable to leadership as well!

Remember that leading people happens on a spectrum. The more skilled you become in using this full spectrum — situation by situation — the more effective you will be as a leader.

Take care,

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