Adaptive Leadership: How to Match your Style to the Circumstances

OK, so you have a sense of where your power to influence others comes from.  But how do you use this power to get others to do things?

Different leadership approaches use these powers in different ways.  A quick search of the internet reveals a wide range of opinions on the number of leadership styles that exist.  Anywhere from four to 40.  The fact that there are so many opinions about this just tells me that there is no clear answer and no one-size fits all explanation of leadership.

To cut through all the noise, here is a simple, effective method you can use to figure out how to lead someone based on their abilities and attitude.

Adaptive Leadership - How to Match Your Style to the Circumstances

The Need for Adaptive Leadership

Imagine if a house is on fire and you need to wake someone up and get him out.  Clearly you need to be assertive, forceful, action-based, even hands-on.  Some people might call that authoritative or dictatorial leadership.

But say a preschooler is trying to learn to tie his shoes.  Can you see yourself using the same leadership approach?  You’re likely to get tears before you get a bow knot.

Or what about convincing someone to come out to support the car wash fund-raiser on a Saturday morning?  You’ll probably end up out there by yourself with a sponge and bucket if you use that approach.

The way that you lead has to fit the circumstances you find yourself in.  We’ll talk here about leading one person, and start with the idea that there is no single leadership style that fits this person in all situations and at all times.

The thing to do is to adapt your leadership style to the person you are trying to lead.

Skill vs. Will

One quick way to decide how to practice adaptive leadership is to look at two key factors:  Skill and Will.  Think about the task you want done and about the person you want to do it, then ask yourself these two questions:

  • How skilled are they at doing the task?
  • How willing are they to do the task?

In fact, you can make a little matrix from these two values, which will reveal four different scenarios when dealing with a particular person and a specific task.

matrix 0Keep in mind that if the task changes, a person’s location on the matrix may also change.  I may not need your close supervision to help me make a sandwich – I’m hungry, and I know how to do it: I’m willing and able all the way.  But if we’re about to split the atom, you’re going to have to convince me that we should do it, and then I’m going to need some guidance.

If you can figure out where a person is on this matrix, then you can pretty quickly decide the best approach for leading them.

Let’s start with a simple example to show how this works.  Looking out the window right now, I see that the grass in the yard is getting long and needs to be cut.

Willing but Unable

When my son was younger and had never mowed the lawn before, he thought it was a pretty gown-up thing to be able to mow.  The idea of mowing was really attractive to him.  He was excited to do it, but he didn’t know anything about it.  That would make him HIGH WILL but LOW SKILL:  he’s willing but unable.

matrix 1For someone in that quadrant, the best leadership approach is that of a teacher.  Show and explain how to prepare and start the mower, demonstrate mowing techniques, explain proper safety precautions.  Help them to understand everything they need to know about mowing to develop their skills so that they can mow safely and effectively.  It will take some energy and patience on your part but if you invest it wisely, you will have someone who is eager and able to get the job done for you.

Willing and Able

If you are successful, his skills grow and he moves into the next quadrant:  HIGH SKILL and HIGH WILL: he’s both willing and able.  As skill improves, less and less of your input and energy are required.  With matrix 2someone in this position, the most effective approach for the leader is that of a Coach (we’re talking about the well-informed, supportive coach here, not the always-yelling kind like the one I had back when I played freshman football) .

This is where we are with the lawn mowing most of the time.  I suggest it; he does a great job.  Done.

Point the way, tell them what you’re looking for, get them started.  You may be needed from time to time to provide input or guidance, but you don’t need to keep telling them how to do what they already know.  In fact, if you do that, you are demonstrating that you don’t trust them to perform the task and they may lose motivation.

Learn to give them just what they need to be successful but nothing more.  Provide constructive feedback, and show some appreciation when they complete the task.  Often they will surprise you with their ingenuity and creativity.

Able but Unwilling

Sometimes you may find yourself confronted with someone who is quite able to do the task, but is not interested in doing it – he’s HIGH SKILL but LOW WILL: able but unwilling.  For my son, after a couple of summers of lawn mowing, making the grass shorter with a noisy machine had lost a lot of its appeal.

matrix 3A common leadership response is to simply apply more pressure, be more insistent, and use louder, shorter words.  Most often, though, this approach will backfire, leading to resentment and making them even more reluctant to do the task.

For someone in this quadrant, the better leadership approach to take is that of a Father.  Try to find out why they are not interested in mowing the lawn, and look for ways to change that attitude constructively through motivation, incentive, or possibly threat.

Maybe it’s hot out right now, but if you let them wait, they will happily mow it in the cooler evening.  Maybe they found out that their friends are all getting paid to mow the lawn and they feel they should, too.  Maybe they would just rather play the latest video game and not mow at all.  The first step to dealing with someone in this quadrant is to determine what the reason is behind the unwillingness and then come up with an appropriate response that will motivate them.

Dale Carengie talks about this and ways to “Make the Other Person Happy to do the Things You Suggest.”  View the situation from their perspective and focus on how doing the job will benefit them.

Fortunately, with my son, he’s happy to mow in the evening when it’s cooler outside, and he knows that he doesn’t get paid if he doesn’t mow.  That’s usually enough motivation to get the job done.

Unwilling and Unable

The toughest case is when you have someone who not only doesn’t know how to do the task, but is not at all interested in doing it.  He is LOW WILL and LOW SKILL: unwilling and unable.

matrix 4In this situation, you could consider moving them on to a different task that they might be more interested in.

If that’s not an option then you need to work on the motivation part first.  Once you have gained their interest, then you can start to work on their skills.

To lead effectively in this situation, think of yourself as the Warden.  You will have to be very clear about what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.  And you will have to supervise them very closely at all times.  It will take a lot of your energy.  If you can change their attitude about the task and generate some interest, it will make your job a lot easier and you can move into a teacher role and treat him like he is willing but unable.

Adaptive Leadership – The Takeaway

So that’s the Skill-Will matrix and a general idea of what is going on in each quadrant.  The first step for you to take as a leader is to try to decide what quadrant a person is in for the task you are trying to get done.  Then practice adaptive leadership to find the right approach that fits the circumstances.

In doing so, you will create team members who are more skilled and more motivated to do the task, and you will be far more effective in leading them.

Lead On!

Photo Credit: Very Quiet via Compfight cc
Adapted from Small Unit Leadership:  A Commonsense Approach, by Dandridge Malone, Presidio Press, 1983

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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