Collaborative Leadership Blog

A New Kind of Situational Leadership

I remember working with an IT team at DuPont on an 18-month organizational transformation project, that when we got to the last meeting, I asked this collaborative management team, “Who is going to lead you going forward?” The almost instantaneous response, in unison, was “We are!” I must have had a very puzzled look on my face, because about 4 of the 11 team members jumped in to clarify: “if Henry isn’t here, we won’t have anyone to help us work through thorny problems. If Alice is not here, we won’t have anyone to help us understand the needs of our workforce. If Jeremy isn’t here, we won’t have anyone to make us laugh. If Walter isn’t here, we won’t have anyone to challenge the decisions we made the day before—he is, after all, an introvert.” One by one they went around the room to articulate the attributes, traits, skills, and value-add of each member of the team. There was a leader for practically every situation this team would face in the future. Who is the leader? “We Are!”

This DuPont team had discovered the Nirvana of teams—a new type of situational leadership—which is the hallmark of true collaborative teams. Blanchard talks about situational leadership being about a single leader adapting their style to a given situation. I think it is much more than that. Situational leadership is about any number of individuals on a team stepping up into leadership roles depending upon the situation and their capabilities. Some key aspects include:

  • Beyond Ego: It is a cliché now that there is no “I” in team; situational leadership does not rest on the ego needs of any one person, regardless of the title
  • Everyone Has a Gift: It rests on the gifts that each team member brings to the table, and their ability to bring those gifts to bear on a particular situation
  • No One Person Knows It All: Research on team survival exercises shows that teams outperform individuals close to 98% of the time; no one person, or leader-by-title, knows it all. It takes the collective knowledge, skills, and capabilities of all for all to succeed
  • We Need Each Other: It is a myth that we can navigate complexity, ambiguity, volatility, uncertainty, and global interdependence by ourselves. We can’t. We need each other’s wisdom, abilities, energy, and support
  • Team Value is Greater Than the Sum of the Parts: The sum is equal to much more than the total of all the members—it’s about synergy, productive energy, and inspiration that comes when we truly work as a team

Leaders-by-title have a choice in their organizations and teams. They can go the ego route and sub-optimize the capabilities and hidden talents of their team members, or they can be humble, learn about the gifts of each, engage them, give the team ownership, and watch miracles happen. In 21st Century business, at the end of the day, the winners will be about WE, not Me.


*Dr. Edward Marshall is an Adjunct Professor in Management at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University; he is an ICF certified executive coach, Lifetime Top 15 Trust Thought Leader, and author of Building Trust at the Speed of Change. You can contact him at or (919)265-9616


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