Thoughts on situational leadership

  • Published
  • By Col. Bernard Mater
  • 733rd Air Mobility Squadron commander
The world has changed since I graduated from high school nearly 28 years ago. The Air Force I joined in 1979 is not today's Air Force. While "fly, fight and win" may be an enduring motto, our culture, resources and people have changed and so have our thoughts on leadership. 

In order to deal with change, effective leaders analyze their situation - the unit's climate, culture, resources and people and simultaneously apply more than one leadership approach to accomplish their tasks and mission. I call this "situational leadership." 

While there are as many "leadership" definitions as there are leaders, here is mine: "An action which influences others to achieve some goal or behave in some manner that they might not have in absence of the action." The key word is "influence" and effective leaders simultaneously use five approaches - legitimate, expertise, coercive, reward and referent - to exert influence through situational leadership. 

· Legitimate. In the military, we are familiar with the chain of command and rank. This is legitimate power - you can order something by virtue of your position and if someone fails to follow, you can take legal action. While rank may have its privileges, the real measure is the subordinates' willingness to support your agenda after you have PCS'd or retired. Use of legitimate power is effective in getting subordinates moving - which is not always the same as getting them to follow. 

· Expertise. The Air Force values knowledge. Coworkers value your expertise on tasks and responsibilities and your situational awareness of the tactical, operational and strategic environment. Sun Tzu said, "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles." You do not have to be a "know-it-all." Effective leaders know when they need to defer to others' expertise and when to share information and knowledge. 

· Coercive. I have seen the results of conflicts between legitimate leaders and expert leaders, and this sometimes leads to the inappropriate use of coercive strategies. Jill Geisler, a management consultant, offers, "Fear is a powerful but dangerous motivator that can hurt the leader as well as the follower." While coercive strategies may quickly get results and can be effective when enforcing discipline, in life and death situations, and with "green" troops, they rarely inspire long-term loyalty. 

· Rewards. If coercive strategies are "the stick," rewards can be your "carrot." Your ability to recognize excellence through such incentives as material and non-material benefits can be a powerful motivator for many. The leader's challenges are to link desired behaviors and performance outcomes to the rewards while fairly administering rewards programs. Once introduced, a leader must manage expectations and avoid perceptions of favoritism. Well-run, motivated units have great recognition programs. 

· Referent. The most powerful, long-term method of influencing others is your character. Referent leaders are recognized as role models. People identify with you and what you stand for, and you are an inspiration, which brings out the best in them. While we may have sometimes known people we do not want to emulate, most of us have a favorite - a teacher, an athlete or a mentor -- that we remember. As kids playing basketball, who didn't want to "be like Mike"? Air Force Core Values are a good start for any leader, but walking your talk is the imperative, and personal failure to do so leads to mission failure. 

While most people have a dominant leadership style, few people have only one style. Just as new technologies and threats have emerged and our culture and peoples' expectations have changed, we too must be able to adjust our leadership style with greater agility now, as compared to when I first joined. 

Our challenge is to match an appropriate leadership style to the organizational climate (e.g., authoritarian, democratic or free reign) and culture (e.g., hierarchical, market, clan or entrepreneurial) using the resources (e.g., time, facilities, equipment and budget) and the personnel available (numbers, age and experience and fundamental motivators). This means that our style may have to change depending on whom we are working with, and based upon what and how we are pushing the mission.
Today, we must effectively use situational leadership if we are to recapitalize and modernize our warfighting capabilities, develop and care for Airmen and their families, and fly, fight and win the Global War on Terror. In order for us to perform the Air Force mission 28 years into the future, we must continue to adapt through situational leadership to lead for today, manage change and transform the force for tomorrow.