Adaptive Leadership

Observation has shown that the best leaders adapt their leadership style to the needs of the individual. As an individual becomes more competent at the particular skills required to complete a task and more emotionally engaged in accomplishing that task, they respond to differing styles of leadership. Awareness of this helps a leader fulfil the needs of several of the leadership practices we have just considered, e.g Considering the Individual, Nurturing the Individual, Enabling Others to Act and Encouraging the Heart.

The Individual’s Journey

Based on observation, an individual’s journey can be characterised by two factors: commitment and competence. For instance someone encountering a task for the first time is likely to have low levels of competence for that task but high levels of commitment. As they develop and learn what to do, gaining experience, they transition to high levels of competence and commitment. In this journey their commitment will typically dip as they pass through a stage of realism concerning their level of ability. This path is referred to as “Follower Development” and there are four classic stages of this journey:

Development Level







This is the Enthusiastic Beginner who is interested in and keen to complete the task but does not yet possess the level of skill necessary to do so.




At D2 the individual has developed some of the necessary skills but are not yet sufficiently competent to complete the task unaided. The provision of this assistance causes them to feel unnecessarily restrained and frustration now blunts their early enthusiasm. Thus their level of commitment declines.  This is the Disillusioned Learner and many will give up but appropriate leadership will get them through.




By now the individual has developed a good level of skill but in the process have become aware of their previous deficiencies. They now know enough to be uncertain that they can do the job. Thus their confidence may be shaky, which in turn can demotivate them. Consequently they become Reluctant ContributorsReluctance due to external issues, e.g. family problems, illness etc. can drag someone at the D4 level back down to here.




D4s are Peak Performers. They have mastered the task and are now excited, motivated and confident. They are eager to do to do the job. After a while they are able to lead others through the development journey for this task.


It is worthy of note that this model applies to the context of a specific task and does not usually provide an overall classification of an individual. Any given person is likely to be at different levels dependent upon the task concerned. Typically they will be at level D4 for one task and may be at level D1 for another. This occurs as new responsibilities are delegated to them.


  • Take a Moment:
    • Identify some activity that once you could not do but at which you are now quite proficient.
    • Describe your experience at each stage of development, use pictures, individual words or phrases.

  • Take a Moment:
    • Consider an individual at level D1. As their leader how would you address their needs related to a task they have never done before?
    • Compare this with how you would address someone who is at level D4.

The Leader’s Behaviour

Broadly speaking the individual at D1 would need lots of detailed direction, which would include very specific training.  Without this support, unless they are self-motivated self-learners, they may never move beyond stage D1.

The person at the D4 level would need virtually no direction at all but would need some support when necessary. So, we can see that the leadership style required for each development level varies.

Two broad types of leadership behaviour have been recognised for a long time but have traditionally been considered to be mutually exclusive:

  • Task Behaviour:

This is about specifically defining what to do and how and when to do it. It is very directive and one-way in nature. The details are explained and that is an end to it.

  • Relationship Behaviour:

This a bidirectional approach which requires interaction and dialogue with the person being tasked. It includes, listening, facilitating, praising, collaborating, coaching, and consulting activities on the part of the leader. It would be described as an emotionally intelligent approach right in line with all that we have been learning about Christ-centred servant leadership. It is a very supportive approach.

Studies have observed that the most effective leaders use a mix of these styles dependent upon the situation of the individual concerned, i.e, where they are on their development journey for the task in question. Considering them together these two leadership behaviours render four styles of leadership which can be used with the various Development Levels.



Level of Behaviour Used

Used with







For people with low levels of competence and high levels of commitment





For people with some competence and some commitment





For people with high levels of competence and variable levels of commitment





For people with high levels of competence and high levels of commitment


The time spent at each stage of development and the method and intensity of support will vary by individual.  For instance an individual who is an experienced, self-motivated, self-starting problem solver may only need a brief, a set of manuals and opportunity to practice to move rapidly from D1 to D2 and beyond. Whereas a less experienced, less confident person, or someone who is not a self-motivated, self-starter may need considerable help and specific training. Such a person is likely to take much more time moving through levels D1 and D2.

Situational Leadership

This approach is called Situational Leadership because it is about tailoring the leader’s behaviour to the situation of the person concerned. It resulted from work by Hersey, Blanchard and Johnson published in “Management of Organisational Behaviour: Leading Human Resources” in 2001.

The goal of servant leadership is to enable the leader’s constituents to achieve their full potential. This means that the leader must recognise the development journey of those they lead and adapt their style accordingly. Situational leadership is good tool to help factor in the situation of those being led as the leader seeks to grow them to achieve their full potential. For example, it is easy to see that someone operating at level D4, that is they are highly competent and highly motivated are likely to be achieving their potential for the particular task in question. The appropriate leadership style for them is S4 – Delegating. Continuing to use leadership level S1 – Directing, for instance, is not only quite inappropriate but will also be highly demotivating.

If someone is at working well at level D4 for some task (A), may be it is time to promote them to some task that is more taxing. They will of course then restart their development journey, probably at level D1 for that new task (B), but they will perceive this as progression. As just discussed one individual, dependent upon their character and experience, may develop more rapidly from Level D1 than another.


  • Take a Moment: Consider the people that you lead:
    • Where are they in the spectrum of development levels?
    • Are you using the appropriate leadership style with them?
    • Sketch out how you might apply the appropriate leadership style to their situation.

  • Take a Moment: Reflect upon the things you do:
    • How would you place yourself in the spectrum of Development Levels on each of them?
    • What kind of leadership style do you need for each one? What would be the benefits?
    • What can you do to help your leader adapt their style to your needs?