Recently my youngest son and I went on a hiking trip to Knarraville, Utah to the Knarraville Canyon Fallswith a group of boys from our church. The hike was long, a little over two hours to the falls, and the weather was sunny and hot. Very hot, as in 121 degrees in the sun. While my son with autism loves to hike, this was the longest and most difficult hike he has taken. We climbed and walked through the stream, (which for the most part could have been avoided, but definitely welcome on a hot day) but the final push to the falls required climbing up a makeshift ladder and then a log.
My son is deathly afraid of heights, even climbing a 3-foot ladder makes him nervous, and this would push him way out of his comfort zone. I questioned whether or not he would make it, but knew he wanted to remain with his friends. He protested and said he couldn’t do it as he stepped up to the ladder and started to climb. I talked him through the steps to take during his climb, where to place his feet and hands, and guided him as best I could from the ground. When he made it up, he was thrilled, and I was relieved. He slid down the slide (and scared his dad by going down the drop), and he enjoyed the entire experience. My son became more confident because I let him stretch himself on the hike.
Situational management is a management methodology that focuses on managing in the situation: letting folks take ownership where they are comfortable and being more directly involved when they are less comfortable or directly struggling. Very similar to a difficult hike: I didn’t have to tell my son to be careful while walking through the water (stones were slippery), or to be careful while climbing over mounds of dirt when trees were too densely grown over the water. When it came to climbing up and down the ladder and the log, he needed help. That’s when I stepped in and guided him verbally through the experience. The key was knowing when to guide, and when to let go. If I tried to tell my son how to walk as we hiked, he would have grown frustrated. Had I not guided him while he was on the ladder, he wouldn’t have climbed. I trusted him to know his own experiences and allowed him to fail when necessary (and when it was safe to do so). I fretted and worried, and I rushed down after he slid down the wrong side of the falls, but still trusted my son to own his experiences.
Situational leadership is hard. It’s hard to let go when you want something done a specific way and let those with whom you have trusted the task do it right. It can also be difficult to know when to step in and take a more active role. It requires a lot of communication, trust, and understanding that there are many ways to accomplish the same end goal. Trusting the learning process and the intentions of your team is important for their development. If you do not, then often they will lose sight of the rewards at the end of the hike because the journey is no longer worth it to them.