The One Thing that Makes or Breaks Situational Leadership


The best leaders I have been exposed to are the ones who practice situational leadership. They don’t treat everyone the same or communicate in exactly the same way with everyone. Instead they get to know people, gauge situations, and tailor their approach to the person and circumstances they are working with. Interestingly enough, the worst leaders I've been exposed to practice exactly the same thing…

The difference is that great leaders operate based on a strong set of principles that guide them as they adapt to different situations and audiences, and are therefore respected for their consistent and steadfast leadership. The worst kind of leaders, on the other hand, simply make decisions opportunistically, i.e. they act purely based on what’s best for them individually at the time (or what's best for the few people they need to ingratiate themselves with to ensure their agenda is supported). Great leaders command respect even if people disagree with their ideas, because they at least behave according to sincere and authentic deeply held convictions. The self-serving hypocrisy practiced by the not-so-great leaders, however, seems to indicate that there's no principle too sacred to be violated for personal gain, and one is constantly guessing whether they even understand the very concept of a sincerely held conviction. It even makes one wonder if those who support these opportunistic leaders are simply oblivious to what is going on—as if they are projecting their own principles onto a person that does not share them—or if they are just opportunists as well, and simply turning a blind eye because they see something in it for themselves.

It doesn’t take a genius to see ample signs of such hypocrisy in American politics. Most elected officials are quite keen to point out the speck in somebody else’s eye while walking around with huge planks sticking out of their own. In fact, on rare occasions when you see a politician vote against an absurd idea proposed by their own party, or speak out against their party’s immoral stand, that person instantly rises to fame as a rare breed and is exalted by one group and vilified by the other. It is a strange spectacle indeed, to see people acting as if standing by one's principles were some kind of heroic feat, rather than a basic standard of conduct that we should expect from everyone.

Well, the same is true when it comes to office politics and dysfunctional behavior in the corporate world. The presence of cliques and silos that are often led by insecure leaders who behave in a self-serving and ill-informed manner leads to massive amounts of non-value added work and wasted energy. It diverts people’s attention away from channeling their collective efforts toward fulfilling the team’s purpose and meeting its objectives, and instead toward trying to get on the right person’s good side and to play the game well to make sure that they aren't on the losing team.

Unfortunately, the leaders at, or near, the top are often the main perpetrators or at least powerful accomplices of such dysfunctional behavior. As such, the systemic problem usually comes down to just one thing: the leader’s lack of integrity. This is exemplified by the leader not living by a set of principles that they equitably apply in every situation to arrive at the right decision appropriate to that specific situation. The leader’s selective and inconsistent application of certain standards, based solely on the benefit or harm to themselves, positions them more as a cult leader than anything else, and serves to divide the organization into those who support the leader—as opposed to their ideas—and those who don’t. This shifts the focus away from healthy debates on legitimate issues, because those who have vowed their unconditional support will always support the leader, no matter how absurd his or her position may be, and those who are not committed to such allegiance are always wary of the hidden agenda that might be motivating the leader’s decisions. In situations like this, where allegiance to a person is privileged over respect for principles, trust and collaboration dissolve completely, and tribal warfare is all that's left.

It is always incumbent upon a leader to unify people and have them support positions and debate issues based on their merits, not based on who proposed them. However, even if such consistent, principle-based leadership is lacking at the top, there are still actions the rest of the organization can take. Let’s discuss specific opportunities we have, as both leaders and followers, when it comes to making situational leadership work for the greater good, by anchoring it in solid principles and righting the ship and restoring integrity where it might be lacking.

As a leader, there are ways in which you can perform a check-up as to whether you are practicing principle-based leadership or not. The following represents just four of many warning signs to watch out for. Keep in mind, because we all fall prey to the bias blind spot and self-serving bias, you may very well not be able to see these red flags on your own. If you are serious about assessing yourself and becoming a better leader, you will need to solicit someone else's objective feedback and take immediate action to make course corrections in the following areas as a starting point:

  • Double-standards – You use one set of standards to judge yourself and your inner circle, and an entirely different set of standards for others. This is particularly insidious, because those who believe they are doing the most beneficial or important work, tend to be most susceptible to acting in ways they would denounce in others.

  • Sensitivity to Criticism – If you are not receiving a healthy dose of constructive criticism on a regular basis, it isn't because you are perfect; it is because you have trained people around you that unless they are going to sing your praises, they should keep quiet lest they incur your "wrath." In the wise words of Andy Stanley, “Leaders who refuse to listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing significant to say.”

  • Disproportionate focus on people, not issues – If your thoughts, words, and actions are primarily focused on yourself and other people, rather than issues, your ego will always be in the way of being a principle-based leader. As the saying goes, “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”

  • Secrecy – If you are unable or hesitant to articulate and openly share your rationale for decisions, it may be because you know you cannot tie them back to principles behind the decision. If the principles that you operate by are not lined up with what you publicly preach, then there is a problem. After all, if one can't be faithful to one's own self-professed principles and convictions, how much less can one be trusted when it comes to faithfulness to other people?

If you are not the leader, and you suspect you might be following a leader who is demonstrating the above characteristics, it is your responsibility to stop enabling them. An unprincipled leader who is out to use people and situations to advance their own personal agenda can never cause significant damage, unless they have the tacit support of others who line up behind them out of ignorance, fear, or for personal gain. We have all known followers who have "sold their souls" and were willing to say and do whatever was necessary to support a leader that promised to protect their interests. And situations like that generally don't end well; as Plato put it, "This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears, he is a protector." If you are supporting an unprincipled leader because you genuinely don't know any better and can't tell you are being used for the time being, then the only hope is that you will someday realize this and break free from the "cult of personality." However, if you do realize that you have been actively emboldening such a leader and you feel in the pit of your stomach that something is not right, then it is time for you to act. Here are a few practices that you can take on to neutralize the negative effects of such a leader and begin to tear down the wall separating the people in your organization from one another:

  • Get centered – Get clear on what you stand for and set boundaries on what you will not compromise. Be aware that the process of getting you to compromise your values is usually presented in small enough doses that is hardly noticeable at the time. If you are intentional about examining where you stand on issues and whether they line up with your personal values, you can gauge whether you are straying from the path you intended to be walking.

  • Examine your thoughts - If your thoughts and opinions always line up with that of the leader or the status quo, and you cannot even entertain the idea that they might be wrong, that is a sign that you may be thinking someone else's thoughts. If that's the case, take some time and really examine where those thoughts came from, why you believe they are true, and whether they hold up to scrutiny without the benefit of the social proof. Ask yourself if you believe them because you think or know they are true, or if because others have simply told you that they are.

  • Seek feedback from others who normally disagree with you – If you are always hanging out with those who agree with you and you find yourself unable to engage in productive discussion involving opposing views, you should consider exposing yourself to different opinions more often and examine and act on their merits. The best way to do this is to seek out those who profess to follow the same principles as you do, but nevertheless disagree with your position or application of those principles.

  • "Fire" your boss – As Jimmy Collins encourages us in his book, Creative Followership, if you are working for a bad boss, you need to either figure out a way to support him or her while maintaining your integrity, or "fire" your boss. If you have suspicions that the leader you have been following is causing you to compromise your character and values, be reminded that you can cut your losses and "fire" them, by choosing to leave or work under someone else, and it will all be worth it.

I hope that you will take this opportunity to attempt an objective look at yourself and take the necessary actions to restore your integrity, in the way you lead and whose lead you choose to follow. I also hope that you will find constructive ways to coach and guide others whom you can influence to do the same. 

As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at

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