People in management or leadership positions are often asked to describe their leadership style. Common responses include "I lead by example," "I build relationships with people," or "I run a tight ship." However, effective leadership, especially for leaders in charge of a small business, doesn't just mean implementing your own plan, but rather adapting it to the situation at hand.

Contingency Leadership

The premise that a leadership should adapt his style for optimum success is actually grounded in scientific studies of leadership qualities. In his 1960's development of the "Contingency Model" of leadership, Fred Fiedler noted that no single best leadership style exists. Instead, leaders must adapt their strengths to best match the situations they are in. Ideally, a leader's abilities align with the needs of an organization or given leadership situation.


Leaders often possess a range of leadership strengths and personal qualities that lend themselves to effective leadership in a variety of situations. The key is to know when to rely on which strengths. In some cases, followers need someone with vision and inspiration to help them break out of a rut. In other cases, a coach is need to develop a young or developing staff, a team-builder is needed to bring together a work group, a relational leader is needed to create a positive work culture, or a task-master is needed to instill discipline. Pushing the right buttons at the right time is the key.

Balancing Act

Fiedler's model generally indicated that leaders lean toward either being relationship-oriented or task-oriented. Some leaders fall at either extreme. Generally, top leaders find a way to balance relationships with task management. Employees are usually more motivated to complete tasks when they feel their leader genuinely cares about them as a person and has their interests in mind. In the same vein. Thus, a task-oriented leader sometimes has to flex to emphasize relationships. In the same vein, a naturally relational leader must sometimes show assertiveness and develop a disciplined, productive group. In these scenarios, the leader adapts based on the drawbacks of his own tendencies.


Fiedler's research suggests that it is best for an organization to find the right leader to fit their situation even if that means replacing an existing leader. While the expression "you can't fit a square peg in a round hole" might hold true, flexibility is a personal trait good leaders possess. In some cases, though, leaders may be forced to flex beyond their own comfort zones or natural instincts. For example, a leader who tries to balance task direction and relationships with employees can adapt to a point where he errs at one extreme or the other.