Stuck in the Middle with You. How Leadership influences Innovation.

When it comes to leadership styles, there is no "one size fits all". Leaders who excel at management should be able to adapt to any and every situation at hand.

Adaptation is truly what makes a good leader great.  Adaptation is also a key ingredient to pursuing the necessary balance of creativity and implementation that is required to push an innovation mindset.

This style of leadership, known in some circles as situational leadership, is a concept that was first defined by Dr. Paul Hershey in the 1950s. It provides a framework for building better relationships by tailoring your interaction style based on situational needs.

Situational theory suggests the leader should change their style based on the amount of relational behaviour and task behaviour required by people. Each style is determined by the needs of the situation and the process typically goes as follows:

  1. Identify the task/priorities
  2. Assess the readiness level of people
  3. Adapt your leadership style to match needs

These same situation techniques can be leveraged to enhance an organizations ability to shape and scale an innovation mindset.  If leaders don’t adapt their style, organizations are in danger of stifling creativity and innovation.

An innovation mindset is all about moving into the "middle" between where an organization is and some future state. Moving into the middle is all about locking in your perspective but working to view necessary changes from a different point of view. This is why innovation methods and tools, such as design thinking, always begin with empathy.

As we are working with human emotion, it is important to have an understanding of your audience and shifting their perspective to properly identify the problem that needs to be fixed – not the problem you think needs to be fixed.

This is better done leveraging situational context and leadership approaches.  For example, as defined by Paul Hershey and Ken Blanchard, there are a number of style approaches that would be valuable:

  • Delegating – This is most appropriate when followers have high ability and high commitment to do the task. They can do the job and are motivated to do it. A win/win!
  • Supporting – When followers can do the task, but aren’t committed to doing it. The leader needs to focus on finding out why they aren’t motivated. 
  • Coaching – Should be used when the follower is willing and motivated, but does not have all the skills and abilities required. The leader does not tell them how to do it; instead, the leader seeks ideas and suggestions from the follower. They engage in a two-way conversation.
  • Directing – Low willingness and low ability calls for the leader to direct the follower. This one-way relationship includes being clear on roles and tasks, and supervising them through each step along the way.

The challenge for the leader is to assess each situation to determine how they should adapt their style to provide the most influence, gain the highest commitment, and empower followers to be successful in their task.

Empathy and situation leadership methods are at the foundation for innovation professionals. This is the ability to move outside of your own perspective and shape a leadership style that needs to respond to opportunities that are surfacing.  When introducing change into an organization, people are always in different head spaces.  Some can be in support of the opportunity and some can be completely against the change.

Making change happen is never easy but leading with empathy and situational awareness will help you overcome many challenges in the change process. What is great is that these tools can be applied in different measures and means for the situation and the people in question.

Just remember – lead with empathy first and be patient in the process.

Next time you are assigning a task, review the task and person to determine which style you need in order to enable innovation: delegating, supporting, coaching or directing.

Have a great day, Jo-Anne.

This article was co-written by Jeff Nesbitt. Jeff helps organizations breathe life into big ideas. As the Founder of Culture Outreach, a boutique firm that fosters an innovation mindset to help organizations realize productivity and revenue growth, Jeff provides practical and pragmatic strategies that ensure growth opportunities are maximized. To learn more about Jeff, click here