For those who lead teams, developing direct reports should be a top priority. 

Read that sentence again.

But how do you navigate development when your emerging leaders need a different, customized style of leadership applied to their learning and development?  

Throughout my leadership journey, I’ve lead teams of all sizes, across country lines, and within different cultures. In doing so, I’ve had to determine which leadership style to apply for each individual being developed. Sometimes I would encounter a situation, find the “problem”, determine a solution, and “fix” it – or so I thought. Other times I would seek to understand, listen, and ask powerful questions that spurred thought and individual change. This approach took a lot more time, energy, and effort on everyone’s part, but it had more fruitful and longer-lasting outcomes. 

In every leadership opportunity, leaders must determine the leadership style to apply to each of their direct report’s development. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. 

Leaders: When it comes to the development of your emerging leaders, do you lead like a mechanic and fix things or a gardener and nurture and grow others to excellence. I would argue the 21st-century workforce needs both the “mechanic” and the “gardener” approaches to develop leaders within their teams.

In the 1980s, Dr. Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard developed the Situational Leadership Model, which explains how leaders should adapt their leadership style based on the abilities of their subordinates. What follows is my adaptation of the Situational Leadership Model, paired with several decades of applied leadership experience and based on the leadership style to adopt in relation to the subordinate’s skill and will.  

Care to give it a shot? The first step is to build the matrix: 

  1. Draw a large cross in the center of a blank sheet of paper so you have four quadrants
  2. Now draw a line from top to bottom along the left vertical axis and horizontally across the bottom so as to halfway enclose the matrix
  3. Along the bottom horizontal axis, write the word “Will”, as in willingness
  4. Along the left vertical axis, write the word “Skill”
  5. At the bottom, far right line, write “High”
  6. At the bottom left corner, write “Low”
  7. At the top left vertical line, write “High”

You have now built your matrix and are ready to proceed with assessing your direct report’s skill vs. will, as well as determine which leadership style to apply.

Mechanic development approach

The left two quadrants of the matrix represent the mechanic development approach. This is where the leader must find the issue, diagnose it, and determine the best course of action to proceed with the development of the direct report.  

Low Will, Low Skill 

When a direct report has low will and low skill; a leader must be Direct. Write this word in the bottom left quadrant of your matrix. In this state, direct reports are novices and possibly are unconsciously incompetent, i.e. they don’t know what they don’t know. The leader must instruct often and consistently engage with a plan for progress and/or improvement.  

Low Will, High Skill 

When a direct report has low will and high skill; a leader must Support. Write this word in the top left quadrant of your matrix. Consider the direct report a journeyman because they know what to do, but don’t seem motivated. The leader must also take inventory of what they might have done to cause the loss in motivation or lack of will. Mentoring and encouragement through one-on-one sessions are appropriate here.  

In both mechanic options of this model, the leader might come to the realization that directing and supporting are not feasible and may have to put the direct report on notice for the good of the organization. 

Gardener development approach

The right two quadrants of the matrix represent the gardener development approach. Like the mechanic approach, the leader must diagnose the situation. Unlike the mechanic approach, the leader must determine the time and resources needed to develop the direct report to their fullest potential.

High Will, Low Skill 

When a direct report has high will and low skill; a leader must Coach. Write this word in the bottom right quadrant of your matrix. The direct reports in this quadrant are usually the new hires with a lot of energy. These folks require a lot of time and attention because they tend to be unconsciously incompetent or unaware of what they don’t know. These folks can also be consciously incompetent, however, and know what they don’t know. This is where feelings of being overwhelmed and panic set in. An effective coaching strategy can enable growth, satisfaction, and development.  

High Will, High Skill 

When a direct report has high will and high skill; a leader must Delegate. Write this word in the top right quadrant of your matrix. These are your high-performing individuals. Whether they’ve been with your organization for months or years, leaders must fully develop and challenge these individuals. If leaders turn a blind eye or don’t think they need to give these folks attention and continued guidance and development – they will leave. As a leader, you need to provide these direct reports with clear and concise guidance. Ensure they understand their roles, responsibilities, and authorities, and cut them loose. Encourage, empower, and elevate these people so that you can focus on bigger things.

Ken Blanchard once said, “Making the development of people an equal partner with performance is a decision you make” and “the best minute you spend is the one you invest in people.” How are you assessing the abilities of your direct reports? What leadership style is required for each one? If you are unsure, the method outlined above can get you started.