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Different Types of Leadership: Prescriptive and Situational

Sid Kemp is a business consultant and author of 10 books on project management and business success.

Why Leadership Style Matters

Leadership has one primary goal: to have the whole team moving in the same direction, with each person contributing his or her best effort. That requires each team member being both motivated and also having a clear understanding of what work is to be done.

People are complicated, individually and on teams. The manager has one goal—to motivate and communicate with team members—but the same style may not work for each team member. Yet if the manager treats each team member differently, that can be seen as favoritism, which leads to problems.

So the question is: How can a manager effectively motivate and communicate with his or her team, and also be and appear fair, at the same time?

Please note that the approaches discussed in this article work at all levels. So if you are a business owner or senior executive, you can think of these as leadership styles. If you are a manager, you can think of them as management styles.

An autocratic leader: This guy looks autocratic—and a bit frustrated, too.

An autocratic leader: This guy looks autocratic—and a bit frustrated, too.

Confusion About Prescriptive and Situational Leadership

The current usages of the terms "prescriptive leadership" and "situational leadership" are very confused, and do not reflect their original meanings at all. As a result, they do not make effective use of some excellent thinking and research.

Businesspeople, without reading carefully, have assumed that prescriptive leadership operates by prescription, telling people what to do. That is not true at all. As you read on, you will see that, in prescriptive leadership, the leader follows a prescription from a management book, and uses it to decide on how to consult with his or her team.

Similarly, people assume that situational leadership, because it takes the situation into account, is more flexible and involves cooperation with the team. That is also not true. Situational leadership also recommends that many factors be used in deciding, as a leader, how much to direct, or be directed by, the team.

In fact—how's this for a mind-blowing detail?—prescriptive leadership is a type of situational leadership.

In general, situational leadership says:

Leader, take the situation into account when deciding how to lead.

And prescriptive leadership goes one step further, saying:

Take the situation into account, and then follow this decision tree (this prescription) in deciding how to lead your team.

This coach's collaborative leadership style shows up as he points the way—and stays more relaxed.

This coach's collaborative leadership style shows up as he points the way—and stays more relaxed.

Flexible Leadership

Some leaders and managers have a single way of doing things. Some are hammers, and every employee is a nail. Others are screwdrivers, and every team member is a screw. That may be why so many employees feel either pounded or screwed by their bosses.

There is a better way. Effective leaders develop a flexible communications and management style that is appropriate to the situation, to the level of motivation of the team members, and to their abilities and knowledge. Flexible leadership realizes that each situation, each team, and each team member is different, and takes that into account.

Leaders who adapt themselves differently to different situations are using situational leadership. The use of situational leadership falls into three categories:

  • Some leaders adapt style to situation naturally and intuitively.
  • Others leaders have specific training, and follow a flexible system of formal Situational Leadership.
  • Other leaders have training and follow a strict decision-tree in deciding which leadership style to use. This last group is following a prescription, or a set of rules to standardize or normalize the decision of how to lead. Those folks are using the Normative Leadership Method (NLM), also called Prescriptive Leadership.
Collaborative leader: This coach is intense, but not tense, as he works to get his point across.

Collaborative leader: This coach is intense, but not tense, as he works to get his point across.

Leadership, Communications, and Decision-Making

To lead the team to success, a leader or manager must make a good decision, and then lead the team to implement it well. But the leader may not be the best person to make the decision, and he or she may not have all the necessary information, either. So leadership requires communication with the team, then a decision-making process, and then more communication to deliver the decision.

The functions of communication before the decision are:

  • To ensure that all relevant information is collected before the decision is made.
  • To ensure that the question is properly defined.
  • To ensure that all appropriate options are considered.
  • To increase motivation by letting every voice be heard. When people feel that they have been heard, they are much more likely to accept a decision, even if they disagree with it.

Decisions can be made in any of several ways:

  • By the leader, with no accountability to the team for reasons
  • By the leader, with discussion and explanation
  • By the team, either by consensus (complete agreement), by voting, or by some other rule

After a decision is reached, communication is essential again for several reasons.

  • To communicate the decision, and make sure that each team member knows his or her role in implementing it.
  • To motivate each team member, and the whole team, to accept the decision, act accordingly, and deliver the desired results.
  • To clarify the degree of latitude each team member has in relation to the decision that has been made.

Whatever style of leadership is used, clarity in communication is always valuable. Clear communication is essential in reducing confusion and hassle, in preventing conflict and being fair, and in supporting team motivation.

Leadership Styles: Autocratic, Cooperative, and Group

Leadership styles vary according to the leader's choice of how he or she gathers and shares information, and also how the decision is made. These five leadership methods illustrate the range of possibilities:

  • Autocratic #1 (AI): The leader uses information already in his or her possession, and makes the decision alone.
  • Autocratic #2 (AII): The leader gets information from team members perhaps without even telling them what the issue is, and makes the decision alone.
  • Consultative #1 (CI): The leader discusses the issue with some or all of the team members, getting their input, but working only one-on-one. Then the leader decides what to do.
  • Consultative #2 (C2): The leader brings the team together to discuss the issue, interact, and develop options. Then the leader decides what to do.
  • Group #2 (GII): The leader leads discussions of the whole team presenting the issue, and the team makes a decision by consensus. The leader accepts the team's decision.

There are, of course, many other possibilities. (There must be a type GI out there, but I haven't found it yet!) But the above list gives a good sense of the range of options.

It's important to understand that our leadership style governs our mood. And our mood, whether we know it or not, governs the team's response to us. Often, autocratic leaders are tense. It is as if they are trying to make their point, rather than get their point across. The photos of coaches illustrate this. When we use a collaborative style, it is easier to be intense without being tense.

The most important keys to becoming a more effective leader are:

  • As leaders or managers, we are better off choosing our leadership style consciously.
  • Our team will work better with us if we tell them how we make, or lead, the decision-making process.
  • The right type of leadership depends on a number of factors related to the situation, to the commitment already present in the team, and the expertise of the team in relation to the decision to be made.

In today's rapidly-changing, pluralistic society, conscious flexible leadership is most likely to pull a team together and create success.

Prescriptive Leadership

Most people run away screaming when they hear the term "prescriptive leadership." They see a nasty boss shaking his finger and telling people what to do. But, if you've read this far, you are probably catching on to the fact that prescriptive does not mean autocratic at all.

Prescriptive leadership does not mean that the leader has a prescription for his team. It means that the leader is following a prescription, a set of rules, in deciding how to work with his team. The leader looks at the decision to be made, the team's commitment and understanding, and, based on all of this, follows a complicated decision tree to decide how to talk to the team and how to make the decision.

The prescriptive leadership model, also called the normative leadership model (NLM), was developed by two theoreticians, Vroom and Letton. (No, I didn't make up those names. They are real people.) In this model, the five different methods of leadership decision-making laid out in the previous section (AI, AII, CI, CII, and GII), are the options that the prescriptive leader chooses among. This is a summary of the things the leader thinks about in deciding which method to use:

  • Quality requirements, and criticality of the decision
  • Whether the problem is structured, and is there a set of solutions to choose among, and an existing method of deciding?
  • Is acceptance of the decision by the team important, and would they accept my decision if I made it alone?
  • Does the team share the organization's goals?
  • Is there likely to be conflict on the team?

NLM provides a decision tree so that a leader can think about the decision and his team, answer eight questions, and have the system tell him which of the five leadership methods to use. If you want to try this out for yourself, first read a description of the model on Wikipedia, then go to this site to get the decision tree.

If you don't want to follow a rule book, you can still use situational leadership and a bit of common sense to become a more conscious, flexible, effective leader or manager.

A Bit of Common Sense

These days, many workers simply don't like to be told what to do. As a result, there are popular ideas that say that all autocratic leadership is wrong. However, this is simply not realistic.

Some situations call for autocratic leadership, especially dangerous situations with under-informed people. A drill sergeant training a team of cadets to crawl across a field under live fire from machine guns should not say, "Let's get together and decide whether to saunter, dance, or crawl across the field." No, he's going to yell, "Down on your bellies! Crawl! Keep your head down, or your dead!"

I, for one, appreciate drill sergeants. That drill sergeant is keeping me alive, and I'm grateful. And I feel the same about firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and ER doctors, as well.

Even when life-or-death decisions are not involved, these days, all too often, the life or death of the company is on the line. At times like this, we may need to ask: Is cooperation more important than expertise? That leads us back to the question: What is the best way to make each particular decision? And that is what this article is all about.

Effective Situational Leadership

So, as managers and leaders, what can we learn from all of this confusion about prescriptive and situational leadership?

  • Be aware of how we make decisions now, and learn new ways of communicating with the team, deciding, and communicating your decisions.
  • Know that different situations call for different types of leadership decision-making.
  • In all cases, define the question clearly.
  • Include the team in the decision-making process, or, if that is not appropriate, inform them of the decision being made, and how it is being made. This shows respect for the team members, which, in turn, makes it easier for them to be cooperative and motivated.
  • Gather all the information to make a good decision.
  • If there is a structured method for deciding what to do, such as a Return-on-Investment (ROI) analysis, or a risk assessment, use it. If you are working with the team, guide them through the analysis. This way they learn how good decisions are made, and also believe in the logic of the decision, as well.
  • Consider how committed the team is. For example, small business owners often believe that their team is as committed as they are, and this is rarely the case.
  • Consider how experienced the team is. If the team lacks experience, and a good decision is needed quickly, it might be better to gather information, and decide alone, using the AII method. But, on the same inexperienced team, if there is no rush, this could be a great time to walk the team through decision-making,
  • Pay attention to conflict on the team, or to one team member who doesn't work well with others. In these situations, it may be better to work one-on-one, rather than risk a group meeting that can exacerbate existing tensions.

I have found that considering these issues and using a large dose of common sense (inherited from my mother and added to by years of study, and workouts at the school of hard knocks) is a very effective way of being a flexible leader who can build a committed team to do amazing things.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


saif007 on July 07, 2013:

thank you for your nice complement

Sid Kemp (author) from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on July 05, 2013:

Thank you - your article has some good basic definitions for everyone to know.

saif007 on June 29, 2013:

thank Alex and also glad to see this,and here i have one source to share my leadership skills at my blog

Sid Kemp (author) from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on November 30, 2012:

Thanks, Alexandra. This topic was provided to me in the HubPages Apprenticeship Program, and, when I began to research it, I found a lot of surprises. I learned a lot, and am happy to share.

Sid Kemp (author) from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on July 06, 2012:

Thank you, Alex. I'm glad I can help leaders become more flexible and know their options for learning and leadership.

AlexandraChapman from Australia on July 05, 2012:


This is hands-down one of the best pieces on this topic I have ever read and also one of the best Hubs that I have read too. I particularly appreciate the way that you have laid out the models, explained what they are (and are not) and have given some useful markers.