What do leaders do? Well, it depends …..

What do leaders do? Well, it depends …..

As I have shown in the first two posts in this series, one of the common ways in which we attempt to describe the phenomenon of leadership is by compiling a list of the attributes (or characteristics, or traits) that we expect leaders to have. It’s easy to do this (even if it’s not easy to live up to the expected traits) and it has a long pedigree.

But we have seen that there are some problems with this approach, and this has led to efforts to define leadership by focussing on what leaders do, rather than what they are. This reflects the tension between universality and conditionality that I concluded with last time and to which we will return from time to time in this series. If a trait approach to leadership aims at some form of universality of definition, a conditional approach to leadership might be termed situational. At the heart of a conditional/situational approach to the definition of leadership and of the question of what leaders are or do is the answer, “well, it depends”. It depends on the context, it depends on what is needed. It’s not about what the leader is or thinks; it’s about what the situation requires, and a leader should therefore respond accordingly.

One of the commonest and most-widely applied definitions of situational leadership comes from Professor John Adair, who might properly be regarded as the founder of leadership studies as an academic discipline in the UK. Adair described the role of the leader as one which balances the needs of the task, the team, and of each individual in the team. The leader has the job of keeping all of these in mind while focussing on completing the task. If you don’t keep the task in mind, you’re not a leader, you’re simply the manager of a country club. But if you focus only on the task at hand and neglect the people you lead, you’re not a leader, you’re a martinet. And those you lead are not simply an amorphous blob (despite what Michael Gove thinks). They are individuals with different skills, talents, ambitions, hopes, moods and problems, all of which need to be taken account of by a leader and juggled accordingly. And, on top of that, this team of skilled, passionate, committed and troublesome individuals needs to be melded together, combining their respective strengths and gifts in a way that achieves the task at hand in the most effective/efficient/productive way. Adair called this task-centred leadership, and it can be rendered diagrammatically thus.


A slightly different model of situational leadership is expounded in the book Leadership and the One-Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard. It’s a quick one-hour read and it’s available for buttons on Amazon. Blanchard developed a simple model of leadership that concentrates particularly on the ‘individual’ aspect of Adair’s triad, and which provides a useful framework for thinking about how to manage the development process of different team members. As he puts it in the book, it’s “Different Strokes for Different Folks”. Now this may be a little bit close to Sybil Fawlty’s specialist subject of the bleeding obvious, but it’s a helpful framework nonetheless and is summarised in the image below.

John Blanchard's situational leadership model

The value of this for those in Christian leadership is demonstrated by the homage[1] shown to this model by Mike Breen and Steve Cockram in their idea of the Leadership Square. This is part of their Lifeshapes model of discipleship, as explained in their book Building A Discipling Culture. Blanchard, followed by Breen and Cockram, makes the argument that leaders adapt their behaviour according to the needs of those whom they lead, building a culture of training and development into their team, one which enhances the performance of the individuals therein and their ability to take on more responsibility in due course. In so doing, the task is accomplished, the team and the individuals therein become more capable, and individually and together they are able to take on bigger and more ambitious tasks in future. Which is nice.

As we have seen, the common thread here is that leadership is not about the leader and who they are (unlike trait approaches, which are all about the leader). Situational approaches to leadership focus on what the leader does (not who they are), how they accomplish the task before them (whatever that is), and how they build and develop a team of people to achieve that task.

Next time, we will look at Transformational Leadership. Are they superhero leaders, or are they egotistical megalomaniacs? You decide.

Richard Tiplady

[1] Not plagiarised or ripped off. Definitely an homage.

The new MA in Theology (Transforming Leadership) course has just started. A New Year 2017 start is possible, in which case you would begin with some pre-reading and seminar preparation in advance of an intensive study week on Leadership and Change (led by me) in Manchester from 20th – 26th May. It is also possible to attend this as an in-service study week. Applications must be received by early January. Complete our Intent To Study enquiry form to find out more.