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Setting the Tone or Setting the Direction?

Setting the Tone or Setting the Direction? thumbnail

There is a tough balance between authentic leadership and situational leadership.  We ask leaders to be true to who they are, while also asking them to adjust their approach to fit the situation or person at hand.  When considering situational leadership, we tend to praise leaders and managers who are naturally resilient and flexible—if flexibility is your norm, and you are able to come back quickly in the face of adversity, it is somewhat easier to be authentic.

There is something, however, to be said for rigidity.  In uncertain times, some people can crave the certainty and clarity that come from directive leadership.  As a current example, while some push against mask mandates, when governments started to relax those mandates, many people complained about the lack of clarity.  At work, in times of multiple demands, constraints that come from clear deadlines with consequences can help people focus and make tradeoffs more clearly.

When is it best to lead from behind and be a model, setting a tone that others can emulate?  When is it best to be more directive and clearer, and provide certainty where it may be lacking?  Many organizational leaders are struggling the question of whether to mandate the COVID-19, with exceptions for religious or medical reasons.  Is it best to share the benefits of vaccination and hope people will comply, or in the face of vaccine hesitancy, is it best to just say, “if you want to work here, do this”?

These are questions both of personal values and social norms.  In some leadership contexts, leaders may prefer to “live and let live”—if something doesn’t directly impact success, there is no reason to be directive.  When the cause-and-effect is less clear, and when the question involves deeply held values, it can be hard to know what to do.

What’s a way through here? When there are no easy answers, ask questions. Getting curious about what is holding people back, or what is leading to their hesitation or resistance, makes us better managers and leaders. This is because the insights we gain allow us to start where someone else is, rather than where we want them to be.

In the end, starting where someone is right now is both authentic and situational leadership—it may make the journey longer, but is likely to be more successful in the end, because we took the journey together.


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