Who has been the best leader in your life, whether it’s a parent, a teacher, a coach or a boss? Who was the worst? Which one taught you more about leadership?

It is ironic, but sometimes, bad leaders can have a lasting positive impact on our ability to effectively influence others in moments that matter. We find ourselves struggling with the approach we should take with a certain person in a certain situation and ask, “What would (my worst leader) do here?” If nothing else, that answer tells us which path(s) not to follow!

Leadership is complicated. It is advanced stewardship. At best, it is a probability science that fully acknowledges that the best leaders on the planet get it wrong about a third of the time, due to extenuating circumstances over which they have limited control. On the flip side of that coin, we also need to concede that the worst leaders on the planet get it right about a third of the time, despite their clear and readily identifiable weaknesses.

In full acknowledgement of that reality, if you aspire to be good at leadership, you find out quickly it is anything but a “soft skill.” In fact, it is the epitome of a hard skill. If you seek to build proficiency as a leader, you have signed up for a journey that never ends, and you will find out quickly that you do not have the luxury of learning one thing and sticking with it. You need to learn a lot of skills and figure out how they all fit together. There is no better example of that practical synergy than understanding how developing your emotional intelligence can make you far more proficient as a situational leader.

Situational Leadership®

What makes a good leader? When it comes to Situational Leadership®, it depends! Every leadership style works — and every leadership style can also make a huge mess:


Empowerment can provide decision rights and autonomy to top performers by serving as a source of intrinsic motivation to drive breakthrough results. But it can also serve to set inexperienced and intimidated followers up for anxiety and predictable failure.


Collaboration can increase the depth and confidence of employees who are developing new skills. But top performers can also perceive it as an indication that no matter how consistently they perform, they will never be trusted to do what they love doing without someone’s looking over their shoulder and engaging in some sort of time-wasting discussion.


Direction can be welcomed by employees who find themselves doing something they have no idea how to do. But employees can also perceive it as the latest in a series of micromanaging episodes from a boss who is on a a “power trip” and is incapable of letting go.

Foundational Competencies

The key to mastering the Situational Leadership® approach is figuring out which style to use when. More than anything else, Situational Leadership® training is grounded in two foundational competencies:

1. Diagnose

Situational leaders are thoughtful people who think before they act. The focus of that thought process is on the task that needs to be performed and the person performing it. The leader intentionally breaks down the task to its lowest common denominator (e.g., from selling skills to probing skills to asking thought-provoking questions of prospects). Next, the leader objectively assesses the person performing the task based on their taskspecific ability (i.e., are they currently performing at a sustained and acceptable level?) and willingness (i.e., relative to performing the task in question, are they confident, committed and motivated?). The answers to those questions enable the leader to identify the approach that will have the highest probability of success.

2. Adapt

All of us have an innate comfort zone when it comes to leading people. That natural inclination kicks in when the opportunity to lead presents itself and we either empower, collaborate or direct. The problem is that our effectiveness as a leader is not governed by our personal comfort zone. Rather, effectiveness is a function of accurately and objectively diagnosing, then adapting to engage with a leadership approach that aligns with the circumstances. This is why leadership is often referred to as “common sense”:

    • If you know an employee is good at what they do and loves doing it, empowerment is common sense!
    • On the other hand, if you can see that an employee has no idea what they are doing and are visibly intimidated by that reality, clear direction (in combination with close supervision) is common sense!
    • And, if you are leading someone who is somewhere between a novice and an expert, a leadership approach that is somewhere between direction and empowerment (collaboration) is common sense!

Unfortunately, common sense is anything but common practice. Leaders frequently misdiagnose their followers’ readiness to perform, and they execute leadership styles based on their level of familiarity and personal preference rather than the nuances of the situation. How can leaders improve their ability to diagnose and adapt? By developing and enhancing their emotional intelligence!

Emotional Intelligence

There are three recognized models of emotional intelligence (EI) in the field of applied psychology:

    • John Mayer and Peter Salovey define EI as the ability to understand and leverage emotions to facilitate thinking.
    • Daniel Goleman views EI as an assortment of emotional and social competencies that enable managerial performance and leadership.
    • Reuven Bar-On describes EI as an array of interrelated emotional and social competencies, skills and behaviors that impact intelligent behavior.

As you might imagine, each of these frameworks documents independent research and offers a unique perspective. What might surprise you is the overlap or interdependence of each perspective and the collegial respect and support each contributor has for the other two. In no order of priority or unique import and reflecting the overlap of the three models, consider the following dimensions of EI as significant contributing factors to effectiveness as a situational leader:


Why do you think and feel what you think and feel? What are the drivers of your emotions and the triggers that can challenge your ability to remain objective? If you never challenge your assumptions as a leader or consciously expand your self-awareness, you will limit your ability to accurately identify work-related opportunities and threats, as well as your ability to effectively respond.

Emotional Expression

Emotional expression is also key. How comfortable are you conveying your feelings in a genuine manner that is not harmful, hurtful, offensive or intimidating? When it comes to leading people, your tone cannot be communicating one thing while your words are conveying something different. People need to understand what you are expressing and be able to readily distinguish among anger, disappointment and excitement.


Empathy is the foundation of trust, and trust is the foundation of leadership. When you empathize, you are actively engaged. You are centered. Perhaps even more accurately, you are “dialed in” to the person in front of you. When you demonstrate these behaviors consistently and genuinely over time, you build trust. When you have earned trust, people will tell you the truth, and when you have direct access to that truth, you can be so much more effective in your efforts to influence.

Impulse Control

Unconscious bias clouds objectivity and contaminates accurate diagnosis. When a stimulus provokes a primal response, the result is purely instinctive rather than intentionally thoughtful. For leaders, effective impulse control translates to the ability to insert thought between stimulus and response:

    1. Stimulus
    2. Think
    3. Response

Situational leaders recognize their impulses and effectively control them.


Optimism is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. It is the dimension that characterizes the distinction between IQ and EQ. IQ is a trait (in some cases, a burden) that is innate. We are born with it, and it changes little (if at all) during the seasons of our lives.

Comparatively, you can enhance your EI just like you can enhance your skill as a leader. Consider that connection as the essence of interdependence between leadership and emotional intelligence:

    • Without optimism, there is no hope.
    • Without hope, there is no change.
    • Without change, there is no progress.

If you care about the short- and long-term impact you have on the people you influence, dive into the synergy that exists between enhanced emotional intelligence and effectiveness as a situational leader. If nothing else, when it comes to leading people, it will clarify when you should be consistent and how you can demonstrate flexibility.