Situational leadership Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2008
Eric Ellsworth believes in being a situational leader.

Whatever the situation calls for from a leadership standpoint — be it a collaborator or a consensus builder or having a more take-charge mindset — the president and CEO of the $33 million YMCA of Greater Indianapolis wants to react with the right approach.

Ellsworth says that having an adaptable leadership approach begins with an ability to assess any given situation, and that begins with taking time to think and mentally prepare before you step into a situation. That can be difficult, especially as business leaders find themselves with more and more responsibilities, but it can be accomplished with some solid organizational skills, an appointment calendar and the services of a good administrative assistant.

Smart Business spoke with Ellsworth about the importance of taking a situational approach to leadership and how that can be accomplished.

Take the time to assess. There are different kinds of leaders who have different natural styles, but I try to be a situational leader. I know that different situations call for different kinds of leadership. Depending on what the situation calls for, hopefully, I walk in as a different leader.

Knowing what leadership mentality you need to bring is about assessing, taking the time to think and be ahead on the front end, and be able to ask yourself some mental questions before going in and saying what kind of leadership this situation requires.

The real key is really about making the time to think. In today’s business climate, it’s so easy to be busy doing that you don’t have the time to mentally process leadership issues. One of the best coaching tips I’ve had is simply to take time to think.

I ask my assistant if she’ll help me to produce blocks of time on my calendar, at least a couple of hours at a time and at least two to three times per week. Appointments are arranged around those thinking and processing times.

It’s sometimes very difficult to find time on the schedule with everything else going on. The size of the organization sometimes determines how much you have to jump into the fray from time to time.

When you’re in a larger organization, sometimes you have a little bit more liberty to hold your schedule. With a smaller organization, it’s much more difficult.

Listen to your workers. I know that there are many different opinions about what the major services are that the YMCA could provide. I’m not the only person who comes to the table with an agenda or opinion. Until you can see where another person or group is coming from, it’s awfully hard to just come in and set your own agenda or opinion without first knowing where other people are coming from.

There will be times when we come to meetings with a preset agenda, but when we’re in session where we’re trying to discover things about the organization, we’ll try to start the meeting by asking people what they’d like to accomplish during that time. We chart that, then hopefully by the end of that meeting, we’ll go back through that list and see if people had their goals met in terms of the meeting.

I try to have face-to-face communication with larger groups, groups of employees. But if people ask for one-on-one meetings, I really try to make myself accessible to volunteers and staff. I try to make enough contact on a regular basis with employee groups so they can hear my thoughts and the priorities of the organization.

If you do that on a regular basis, it really has a way of cutting down on individual meetings. I have 12 branches of the YMCA of Greater Indianapolis that I try to work with, and I try to put myself in front of those employee groups on a regular enough basis, and I’ve found that requires fewer one-on-one meetings.

I have those meetings on at least a quarterly basis. Sometimes that doesn’t have to be a staff meeting. It can be a special event or something where most of the staff groups are assembled. I try to deliver a lot of the same messages time and time again, making sure the priorities of the organization are said enough times so that people not only hear them but internalize them.

It’s a lot about buy-in. If you’ve had a chance to express thoughts and opinions, the likelihood of you walking out of the door with people on board is higher. As a team member, you don’t always have to have your way, but you always hope to have your say.

Don’t forget the priorities of the organization. I personally need to remind myself of my own priorities. If I need it, I know the rest of the staff needs it, as well.

I’ve been in organizations before where we almost had to beg the leader to tell us what the priorities of the organization are. You can really starve for that as an employee if the leader isn’t letting you know.

What happens if you don’t communicate that is you end up with people determining their own set of priorities. Because people are so differently talented in different ways, people gravitate toward the things they enjoy the most.

But those things don’t always line up with the things in the organization that need to be priorities. And sometimes, priorities change, sometimes on a month-to-month basis, but certainly on a year-to-year basis.

HOW TO REACH: YMCA of Greater Indianapolis, (317) 266-9622 or