I am a strong believer of situational leadership, using different styles of leadership based on the individuals involved (personality, learning style, motivation)  and the stage they are in the process. At the end of my kayaking experience during my last vacation, I realised that one of the challenges for leadership with this model is assuming that the leader in question is able to determine the right time to change the style of leading as organisational circumstances change. How do you identify the right time to change styles, especially when one style has worked in the past with a follower in a similar circumstance?

I was sitting in a Kayak in the middle of the Cocoa river in Florida filled with panic.  I realised the quietness of my surroundings, rather than creating calm, resulted in a turmoil as I wondered my fate. What happens if I flip with my eleven-year-old daughter into the water below? Some part of me was wondering what mid-life crisis or adventurous spirit  drove me to accept doing this.

Kayaking is something I had never done, but right then, in the middle of the night, after a forty-eight-hour flight, in a river filled with Dolphins, I was attempting it. This was the highlight of my Christmas holidays, one that opened me to challenging a framework I have always loved: Situational Leadership. This framework requires adapting your management style to each unique situation or task to meet the needs of the team or team members. It starts with an understanding of the task or objective that needs to be accomplished. Both the leader and the follower align on the follower’s readiness to perform, and the leader  selects a style or an approach. It is dependent upon the individual’s level of ability and willingness to complete the specific task.

This holiday, Kayaking with my kids provoked my assumptions on leading in this manner. Kayaking is a great way to explore the outdoors and enjoy the serenity of nature while also providing a great physical challenge. Kayaks are small, sleek boats that can be propelled and steered through the water by the user or users. It  is a great physical activity, as it requires balance and coordination, as well as physical strength.

My daughter took on the role of deciding which fun activities we would engage in during our trip to Florida. My daughter has a natural talent to plan out everything.  When she researched and came up with the list of activities each day of our holiday, we were obliged to accept her recommendation, ranking top of the activity list was “Night Kayaking”.

As my children got into the teens and pre-teens, I started delegating the task of planning family events to them. I found out my ideas of fun are no longer as relevant as what they perceive to be fun. Night kayaking was very captivating to me. Being a very visual person, I was enamored by the night pictures of people rowing boats with glow lights in it, surrounded by the beauty of nature.  When Sarah, my daughter showed it to me, my answer was, “Yes!  That looks like fun!”

The Bioluminescent Kayaking was beautiful but we settled for the LED nightlight clear board kayaking since it was the cold winter nights. We still got to see the glowing Jellyfish in the water while we kayaked. It was the first for all of us except Sarah, my eleven-year-old daughter, who had tried it on her last school camping trip. After flying over 48 hours from Dublin because of the layover, we landed in Florida, checked into our hotel, got dressed and headed to Cocoa Beach, Merritt Island for Kayaking.

Lesson One:

Never Try Something New and Challenging When Physically Exhausted or Mentally Drained

This sounds rudimentary, yet easily ignored.

As soon as I slipped into the boat with my daughter, she requested I not stumble to create a scenario where we would capsize. The tone of her voice and the look in those cute little eyes told me she was frightened.  My mind quickly went to the preparatory talk by the guide, something about `Dolphins in the water ready to tumble our kayak.

I immediately pictured my daughter and I in the cold Florida waters wading off dolphins shouting for help and it  sent me into a panic. I looked back to see the other groups were boarding; I immediately brought out my mobile phone from the waterproof bag and clicked on music from Apple Itunes.

As we all kayaked,  ours moved from the leading spot to the back, until i could not make out the other groups in the dark. I checked to see we held our paddles correctly and facing the right direction. I then suggested we stick to the “One-two” rhythm  song suggested by the guide to maintain rhythm. Nothing worked! I suggested that I take the lead with rowing while seated at the back and my daughter should follow suit with the sound of my voice.

I was  frustrated with the fact that the more we rowed, we either headed the wrong direction or just barely moved much. As with the crisis, I entered into my full directive mode, insisting my daughter stop rowing and allow me to continue alone. My assumption was that she did not have the upper body strength to move the paddles and I could  take it from there. Not much changed.

She tried sharing some suggestions but my listening mode must had been turned off. The darkness and quietness around scared me as I tormented myself with  pictures of Dolphins surrounding us as we cried for help. I started calling out to the guide for help. The guide saved the day: he came and, swiftly recognizing the situation, towed our kayak until we caught up with the wider group. He kept assuring us how simple the exercise is; he was convinced we could try rowing on our own once more.

Hersey and Blanchard Situational Leadership Styles

Hersey and Blanchard Situational Leadership Styles

Lesson Two:

Recognizing When it is Time to Change Your Leadership Style Requires Awareness, Maybe Experience.

What I love about the situational leadership framework is the flexibility of the leader to adapt to use the best style appropriate for the situation and the individuals involved. You find the style that fits and stick to it. I never considered the dynamics of identifying when to switch in a particular situation, diagnosis even adapting during execution. What levers do you consider or how do you recognize it is time to change your approach? Especially when a situation or circumstance gradually changes while you are engrossed in it?

When we finally got disconnected from our guide, I managed to stop directing my daughter and listen to something she was requesting. She started to participate in helping us find our rhythm and steer the boat. Tired and exhausted by the entire experience, something in me gave in and I just did as she suggested. Her suggestions worked so I followed her lead and rowed after her. The speed of the kayak started to pick up and we also headed in the right direction. As we got to shore, I caught my daughter’s attention and told her I was grateful for her ideas and apologised for trying to dictate how we rowed even when she tried to participate and share ideas we could consider. I was humbled by this experience.

I spent the night trying to direct my eleven year old, because I believed she was inexperienced and I needed to take lead in this crisis. I came off the kayak questioning my leadership style for this task especially at this phase of their lives. It was time to contemplate and challenge my idea that more than identifying the style for a particular situation, I needed to be more aware of the changing nature of the environment and people involved. I needed to be present. The experience was a reminder people are always growing and with growth comes the need to adapt.

Here’s a question I’m still pondering on: How do I identify when a situation or circumstance has changed? I am grateful we took that trip not because of the fun activity and  irrespective of the bonding but more importantly  the leadership lesson I took away from it.

Jane Egerton-Idehen is a bestselling author, an accomplished senior Fortune 500 technology Executive, strategic advisor, spokesperson, and director of non-profit organizations. An engineer by training, she is an expert in the Telecommunication industry, seamlessly bridging the divide between engineering, technology, and the end consumer.

Jane has a strong passion for promoting girls in STEM and ensuring women in STEM industries remain and grow their careers in that industry. She curates her thoughts around her career journey, experiences, and passion in life. Join our conversation on our Facebook page @WomenNCareer and Check out video blog Women and Career on YouTube.