From dictator to leader: 4 key skills for situational leadership

  • situational leadership

Leaders are put in positions of power and responsibility. Every leader, regardless of their domain, has the opportunity to exert their influence over others. This power is not necessarily a bad thing, but it means effective leaders must walk a thin tight rope where any sudden changes or bad decisions can knock them–and others–off of their intended path. Thus, one of the most important skills for a leader to develop is what we call situational leadership.

Situational leadership is a skill where the leader is able to adapt to difficult situations and ensure that they maintain control of their followers without quashing their rights, skills, or ability to function. 

Situational leadership comes in many different forms, but we are going to talk about some of the basics to developing a situational leadership skill-set. We cannot tell you how to adapt to every situation you could ever be in. The critical step to developing situational leadership is to practice and develop a general leadership framework that can apply to the myriad situations that leaders face.

Think of this analogy: a leader is like a parent. Leaders attempt to direct followers, teach them, help them, nurture their skills, help them achieve their or group goals, and are ultimately responsible for the group’s actions. A parent does the same for their child. Similarly, when you look at the research on parenting there are different parenting styles just as there are different leadership styles. 

We’re going to focus on how this parenting metaphor can help you develop your situational leadership skill-set. 

We will cover four major parenting styles, and what you can learn from them, including how to  

  1. Avoid authoritarian actions by being approachable and corrigible
  2. Maintain control without taking away freedom
  3. Supervise and guide rather than being a “helicopter” leader
  4. Maintain respect while making difficult decisions. 

As always, our team of psychologists have combed through hundreds of research papers in psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, management, organizational behavior, behavioral economics, and applied ethics to inform our research-backed tips and to help you develop as a situational leader and avoid leadership pitfalls. First, however, we’ll talk a little bit more about our parenting analogy and how this can help you in your leadership journey.

download app
leadership through parenthood

source –

Lead like a good parent, not a dictator for effective situational leadership

Most people expecting a child, especially in our current society, spend time trying to figure out how to be a parent. They think about their parents, their friends and relatives as parents, and maybe even harken back to middle school projects like taking care of an egg or a bag of flour. Yet, when we find out we are going to be a leader or in a position of leadership, people often have the “I’ll figure it out when I get there” mentality.

While being a parent is different than being a leader of an organization or a team of adults, they have many similarities. Leadership and parenting are often thought of as styles or particular habits and actions people try to engage in repeatedly. Parents and leaders both require conscious deliberation about actions, interactions, and choices, and ensure that they think about others and not just themselves. 

But the question is: can parenting research help me become a better leader? The answer is yes, and we’ll talk about how the basics of parenting research applies to leadership. 

The psychology research on parenting styles is initially broken down into four general styles or categories. This work is initially based on the work of Diana Baumrind, a developmental psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley. These styles are: 

  • Authoritarian
  • Permissive
  • Neglectful
  • Authoritative (not to be confused with “authoritarian”)

We’ll briefly talk about each of these styles and how they relate to your journey as a leader, especially your situational leadership skills. The authoritative style, which is the best of parenting, is also the best for leadership. We’ll end with the key to becoming an authoritative situational leader.

combat authoritarian leadership

source –

Skill 1: Combat authoritarian tendencies by being approachable and corrigible

Authoritarian style and its problems

The authoritarian parenting style is similar to its political counterpart. This parenting style is defined by attempts to shape, control and evaluate behavior in accordance with an absolute, standard.

The style also values unquestioned obedience and favors punitive, forceful imposition of authority. Parenting research has shown that this style breeds resentment, long term discipline issues, and emotion problems.

It’s not too difficult to imagine a parent or a leader like this, and you’ve probably encountered someone who fits that description. A leader who fits this description is likely to keep “yes men” around or people who don’t question their authority. The leader will also likely be quick to anger when they are disobeyed or crossed. Also, think about another place where you hear the descriptor “authoritarian” tossed around: political regimes and dictators. The focus is absolute control and authority of the leader over others. 

Sometimes inexperienced leaders fall into this style of leadership to overcompensate for their lack of experience, expertise, or familiarity with the role. Experienced leaders can also fall into this trap for the opposite reason. Experienced leaders can rely too much on their prior experience and not be open to new information, new ideas, or criticism. 

All leaders are in danger of becoming an authoritarian leader. This style can inhibit your situational leader skills and abilities. Much like authoritarian parents, this leadership style can cause several problems with your team or subordinates. The leader can be resented for exercising too much control, morale can weaken among the team, or the leader can become a distraction for the project. These, of course, are all problems that, in the long run, inhibit your ability to lead and the team’s ability to work.


Make yourself approachable and corrigible

One of the best ways to keep yourself from succumbing to this pitfall is to make yourself approachable and corrigible. Essentially, you should try on a daily basis to make yourself open to your team and seek advice. 

Consider doing the following daily:

  • Keep your office door open whenever possible
  • Take a long route where you can interact with your team when you go to the breakroom or coffee machine. 
  • Have lunch or take breaks in communal places
  • Ask for advice about non-work related things (such as restaturans, music suggests etc.)
  • Ask advice for small, seemingly innocuous work related things (such as color, photo arrangement etc.)

Consider doing the following weekly or monthly:

  • Casual lunches with your team, as a group or one-on-one
  • Life check-in sessions. Ask about new things people are doing, or about new developments in their family life, etc. 
  • Brainstorming sessions. Topics can be targeted (how to solve a certain work problem) or broad (how to improve the office, generally). 

Doing these actions on a regular basis helps prevent a leader from seeming distant and disinterested in their employees. Once you have a rapport with your team, it makes it easier for them to understand when you have to be tough or take control. It enhances their trust in your as a leader, and as someone who has their and the team’s best interest in mind.

control with freedom

source –


Skill 2: Maintain control without taking away freedom

Avoid the permissive style

On one hand the authoritarian style is ineffective, but leaders also must ensure they don’t swing too far in the other direction by being overly permissive or neglectful. 

The permissive parenting style is characterized by the parent practicing non-punitive, acceptant, and affirming actions towards both acceptable and unacceptable behavior. The style emphasizes the child’s ability to self-regulate their desires, actions, and impulses independently and devoid of externally set boundaries. Upon first pass, this actually sounds like a pretty good leadership style. WRONG. 

The major issue here is that as a leader, it is your responsibility to manage your group and direct them towards a common goal, rather than allowing individual members to determine their independent, and likely divergent goals, rather than emphasizes the collective effort. You might think this is like having too many cooks in the kitchen. We have colloquial phrases aimed at overly permissive leaders, such as “doormat” or “puppet.”


Find the balance

A good situational leader is able to balance their control and group freedom/autonomy by focusing group work and time. Here are three great questions to ask to see if you are giving up too much control or if you have taken away too much freedom.

  • If I were a group member, would I be able to accomplish the task with the available resources?
    • This question gets you to think about how you would work under yourself as a leader. If you look at the available resources (which include autonomy, workspace, and guidance) and find that you could not accomplish the task, then it means that you need to intervene as a leader. You might need to provide more freedom, or exert more control in the form of guidance.
  • Do my interactions with the team change their behavior?
    • This question gets you to think about how your actions affect the behavior of others. As a leader, everything you say and do has an effect on the behavior of those around you. Asking yourself this question helps you identify if your recent actions have been helpful, or figuring out which types of interventions aren’t helpful to your team. It builds on your emotional intelligence skills.
    • This also helps you think about how you regulate the team. If the team isn’t responding to your actions in the way you anticipate, it might mean you’re falling into the pitfall of being too permissive or being too overbearing.
  • Where is the team in accomplishing the goal, and what can I do to get us to that goal?
    • On a very basic level, this should be a question you ask often regardless of what type of leader you are or if you’re worried about this pitfall. It is good practice to periodically check on your progress as a team.
    • In terms of situational leadership, this question helps you think about how your team is progressing and how your actions relate to the team’s goals. Often as the leader, you’re delegating tasks, overseeing work, or providing feedback, but aren’t doing the direct work yourself. Looking at how your actions relate to the group or team goal is an important way to identify issues you might create in being too permissive or too authoritarian.

These are great check in questions for any leader to use regularly. Each question addresses a different, yet important factor about situational leadership. They all look at what’s called the LMX, leader-member exchange, or the relationship between the leader and their team.

helicopter leadership

source –


Skill 3: Supervise and guide without being a “helicopter” leader

The neglectful style

The neglectful parenting style is similarly unhelpful. This style is characterized by a lack of parental guidance or concern for the behaviors and actions of their child. Often, this style is used to describe parents who are more interested in their own (or someone else’s) well-being over the child in question. Connect this to leadership. The group becomes a secondary concern to this type of leader.

On the other end of the spectrum are “helicopter parents.” The helicopter parent is always looking over the shoulder of their child, constantly monitoring their behavior, usually ignoring privacy concerns, and solving every challenge for the child. But what about a helicopter leader? Think of this leader as one who micromanages everything and everyone on their team. 

So how can you balance being too hands off or neglectful with being too involved? 


Balance between neglect and helicoptering

The trick is being the type of leader who checks in and supervises without seeming like the overbearing micromanager. Here are three ways for you to balance staying informed without seemingly like a micromanager.

  1. Ask for a short, confidential self-progress report from team members. 
    • This allows the team to determine what they think is relevant to group progress. If the self-reports are straying from what you know as a leader is the group goal, then you can address this with the team. It also helps your team reflect on their progress and has been shown to decrease overall stress.

    • This also allows you to hear another perspective on how the team is progressing. Often you might see the big issue, but not be able to find the direct cause. These reports provide you individual information that team members can share with you without having to tell the whole team.

    • This keys in on perspective taking and helping you develop your empathetic leadership skills.
  2. Have a highly visible, group progress or task chart that can be updated by the team.
    • This is something that can be done quite easily using a bulletin board or a dry-erase board in the office, or even the break room windows (if you use the right markers).
    • This allows everyone to be aware of what the immediate goal each sub-group or team member is working on. Remember that this is a team board, not a board just for you. This means that team members should be able to update the board with checks or similar notation when tasks are completed and move on to the next.
    • One warning here is DO NOT make this a competition. Competition can be helpful in a lot of situations, but remember that your focus here is being able to collect information.
  3. Have a walk about routine
    • One reason that people become suspicious is when a leader starts behaving differently after someone makes a mistake or there is an error. Checking in after a problem arises is something that most leaders feel compelled to do, but it can make you seem like the “helicopter parent” for your team.
    • One of the best ways to combat this is to have a regular routine of taking a walk around the office and checking in with group members casually about their progress. Schedule at least an hour a week where you simply walk around and casually talk about the progress of the team.

During these meetings, you should try to ask them if they’re suck on something, or if they need a second set of eyes, or even just a break. Often, people try to push through a problem or a block of some kind (like a writers block or a creativity block); as a leader, you might be better positioned to offer some guidance or a helpful, short distraction in these cases. The only way to know is if you have the routine of walking around.

command with respect

source –


Skill 4: Maintain respect, while retaining command

So far we have talked about ways to avoid major leadership pitfalls and enhance your situational leadership skills. Yet, there is one big aspect of situational leadership we haven’t talked about: how to make decisions in the moment and how to maintain control while also keeping the respect of your team.


Authoritative style

In the movie The Last Castle, Robert Redford plays a three star US army general who is arrested and sent to military prison after a failed operation. During this character’s military career he wrote a book called, The Burden of Command.

For every leader, there is a slightly different burden of command, but one that every leader shares is trying to balance how you are approachable and understanding, but also being authoritative and in control. The authoritative parenting style requires a similar balancing act. 

The authoritative parenting style attempts to direct behavior in a rational, issue-oriented way. This encourages communication and causal reasoning about behavior in an attempt to modify or alter said behavior. Research has demonstrated that the authoritative style is the best for child rearing. Take a second to think about a leader that might meet the definition above. That leader is probably someone who…

  • can be decisive, but will take advice and collect data,
  • discusses missteps and talks about improvement rather than finding blame and scapegoating, and
  • values the independence, ideas, and work of their subordinates, while realizing that making tough decisions ultimately falls to their discretion.


How to implement the authoritative style

So how do you let everyone know you’re in charge, and ultimately decisions are your responsibility, but also maintain the respect and trust of your team when you make decisions that upset or don’t favor them?

Before we get into the specific tips, we should mention a few caveats. First, we appreciate the difficulty of having to make these types of decisions. Situational leadership requires practice and information. Our first three skills are great ways to help you be an effective situational leader, but sometimes the “right” decision is still unclear.

If you’re making decisions with uncertainty, we have investigated research into decision making under uncertain conditions, and some general strategies to optimize decision making

Now, balancing the burden of command. Here are three ways to help you balance the burden of command and enhance your situational leadership decision making skills.

  • Experiment with counterfactuals. Counterfactual thinking–that is, imagining ways the world could be different–has been shown to increase preparedness for novel problems and situations. Take 5 minutes a day to think about how you might solve a previous problem differently and what the consequences would be, or how you could change the status quo. This helps increase problem solving skills and enhances creative problem solving.

  • Be a transparent decision maker. Losing the trust of your team is the nail in your leadership coffin, and one of the easiest ways to do this is by not being transparent. But this isn’t always an option when in a crisis situation or when you need to act immediately. So creating a standard of having transparent decision making throughout your leadership tenure is key.
    • Call meetings to solicit information or advice from the team. You don’t necessarily need to make the process democratic, but having a decision making forum allows the team to feel as though they are part of the process.
    • Explain your rationale behind decisions. If this is your usual practice, then it gives you some credibility when you don’t have time to discuss the decisions immediately. If you have to act immediately, but have a standard of transparency, your team is more likely to let the phrase “we’ll talk about this later” into a real promise, rather than a placating term.
  • Put some skin in the game. One of the biggest criticisms of leaders by their subordinates is that the leader doesn’t have the same “skin in the game” as them. As a leader, you want to be sure that your team understands that you are working with them, and not that they are just working for you.
    • When making tough decisions, make sure you aren’t just pushing everything on the team. Discuss and be open about responsibilities that you’ll take on or things you can do to aid the team as they execute your plan.
    • Be both an executive and a servant. Executive leadership is when you make decisions and set a direction for the team, but servant leadership is when you help them get there and support people trying to achieve a goal.

The reality is, no one can just “turn on” their situational leadership skills whenever they want. You need to practice these skills to ensure that when your situational leadership is really tested, your behavior is likely to conform to the good habits you’ve established.

effective leadership

source –


Recap of from dictator to leader: 4 key skills for situational leadership

Situational leadership is critical to any developing leader. Situational leadership usually involves leaders making decisions in the moment or fixing problems, however, you have to create good leadership habits so you can have the best situational leadership skills possible when they are called upon. 

We’ve talked about how research on parenting styles can help you develop key situational leadership skills. The research on parenting styles talks about 4 styles that help us think about leadership differently.

  1. The authoritarian parenting style shows us the dangers of trying to exert too much control over your team. The remedy is to avoid authoritarian actions by being approachable and corrigible.
  2. The permissive parenting style shows us the danger of being a “doormat” to your team and not enforcing proper standards. The remedy is to maintain control without taking away freedom.
  3. The neglectful parenting style shows us the danger of not paying attention to your group but also the problems of being overbearing. The remedy is to supervise and guide rather than being a “helicopter” leader.
  4. The authoritative parenting style is a proxy for understanding a good situational leader. The most important situational leadership skill is learning how to maintain respect while making difficult decisions. 

We’ve talked about some simple tips and actions that you can start to practice on a daily or weekly basis to help you develop your situational leadership skills based on parenting research.