Leadership is Situational, Integrity is Not

A few years ago I attended a workshop called Situational Leadership by the great Paul Hersey. He’s the guy who wrote the book on situational leadership. I was really looking forward to the workshop because another lecturer in the class was Marshall Goldsmith (his website is filled with lots of great resources), often considered to be the world’s best executive coach, who has written about succession among CEOs—something I was going through at the time. But I’ll leave the succession topic for another day.

I signed up for the class thinking that it would help me lead my team better. Who wouldn’t invest in that? What I learned, however, surprised me.

I had always thought that people had their own leadership styles. One could be autocratic, consensus building, charming, aloof, data-driven, passionate, etc. What I learned was that leadership is situational and the best leaders ADJUST their styles to suit the situation and the capabilities of their team. Exactly how you do that was the subject of several days of work and is hard to summarize briefly. But if you’re interested in learning more, there are many online resources and books available.

Let me repeat the lesson because it was really a surprise to me: Leaders ADJUST their styles to the situation. That is, they don’t just have one “style.” Their styles change to address the needs of the moment…hence the term situational leadership. By studying this you learn to alter your style according to the competence, experience and motivation of your team as well as the risk and urgency of the circumstances.

Integrity, on the other hand, should be immutable and unchanging. It’s not for sale, and it doesn’t depend on the circumstances. Of course we’ve all been tempted by morally ambiguous situations, and none of us (myself included) is holier-than-thou. But you really need to have a set of principles for your life to guide you in how you conduct yourself and deal with other people in professional and business situations that shouldn’t change by the minute or by the situation. True leaders develop their principles with a view toward the long run. They don’t sacrifice their integrity for short-term gains.

In summary: How you behave and manage a situation are variable. Who you are and what you stand for are not.

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Written by:
Neil Kane, the Director of Undergraduate Entrepreneurship at Michigan State University, is a leading authority on technology commercialization and innovation and has the battle scars to prove it. He was named a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum in 2007. His Twitter handle is @neildkane. He’s also on Google+ and LinkedIn.
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