Situational Leadership: Management lesson on different Leadership styles through Rappelling session

Situational Leadership: Management lesson on different Leadership styles  through Rappelling session

Situational Leadership: Management lesson on different Leadership styles through Rappelling session

          Recently I along with my 24 colleagues went to a training camp imparting military-style training (only in a limited way) on a hill station. The training was for two days. None of us had any exposure to such obstacle training enticing mind application and strategizing to overcome obstacles and endure physical challenges. Also encouraging us to endure some physically demanding tasks. This was fun.

          On the second day, we were taken a little downhill in front of a wall, which was about 35 feet high. At about 20 feet from the ground, there was a triangular bulge of about two feet on the wall, creating an obstacle. A team of instructors and helpers were there. We stood in awe wondering what is coming next.

      The head instructor said, “You have to descend the wall with the help of the rope, walking backwards. This is rappelling or abseiling. All of you will be safe. Two experts will check your descending gear, one at the bottom and again one at top.” He continued, “The rope and rappelling gear can withstand more than ten times your weight. So there is nothing to worry.” He said that at a time two persons would come up through side stairs for rappelling.      
"Our Chief want in life is somebody who will make us do what we can."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

          None of us had done rappelling before. We stood with mixed feelings. Some were excited about the adventure, doing something new, something different. Some were anxious and a little frightened. All had fear of failure. “What if others did it and I could not complete it?”  Fear of unknown coupled with the fear of failure played on us.

Tentative, we started going up in pairs. On the top, two safely anchored instructors were acting as the belayer. Each instructor started communication with the team member assigned to him for rappelling. He initially asked casual questions like our name, place where we came from, how we were feeling while he checked the equipment. He attached the rope to our gear, which went down the entire length of the descent. One attendant was at the bottom of the wall to hold the rope in case it swayed beyond comfort. The rope was also attached to the instructor’s gear.

The instructor briefed us about how we will perform the task. How we will hold the rope with both the hands - one in the front and one in the back, how to lean backwards at the edge of the wall with the help of rope until we became perpendicular to the wall in a walking stance, how to keep our legs spread apart to prevent going off-balance and swaying sideways, take smaller backward strides, etc. His instructions were clear and unambiguous. Still, he confirmed, “Have you understood? Any doubts?”

Then he asked us to proceed for the task. The instructor comforting us said, “Your rope is also in my hand, I can hold it in case you go too fast or start falling. But that won’t be necessary as I will guide you.”  In the initial phase of our descent, the instructor kept constantly guiding us. It was difficult to get accustomed to walking backwards with legs spread apart and holding the rope with one hand in front and with one in back. The instructor asked us to take backward steps one by one, often reminding us to keep the legs spread. He encouraged us and if we did right appreciated us, “You are doing very good, keep going.” All the while, he maintained communication. When he sensed that, we have become comfortable with the rappelling style, he would say, “Now you can do it on your own, go ahead.” He would smile and suggest, “Don’t forget to stop once and get yourself photographed by the fellow team member.”

As we saw pairs successfully completing, our confidence grew; it made us feel, we can also do it.

          Then one person, among the heaviest lot, swayed to the left side and lost his moorings. However, the rope kept him tightly hanging as his shoulders gently hit the wall. In the very beginning, instructors advised us to keep our legs spread apart. Yet some of us were not very careful. The instructor and his team quickly stopped the swaying. Instructor calmly asked him to use his hands to stabilise and then use his legs to regain position. He followed the instructions and completed rappelling, unhurt.
        Finally, all who attempted it completed the rappelling successfully. However, five team-members did not attempt it, for reasons of their own. It was voluntary, so nobody insisted. Those who did attempt were not bothered – how others performed or who did not attempt. We were more than happy to complete what we had not done before, which looked daunting initially. 

         We were elated and wanted to break for lunch. Alas, head instructor assembled us for discussion and asked, “What have you learnt from the session?” We spoke about conquering fear, the adventure of doing something new, following instructions, taking calculated risks, etc.

After acknowledging our comments, the head instructor introduced us to a new concept – “Situational Leadership”. There are many styles of leadership and depending upon the situation or need, each style should be applied.

He said, “Initially the instructor talked to you, made you comfortable with communication. Then he gave you clear instructions and confirmed that instructions were clearly understood. He asked you to lean back or take back-step only when said so. He wanted you to behave exactly in the manner he instructed. This is Directing style of leadership.” “When you started leaning backwards and rappelling”, he continued, “Instructor was constantly communicating and advising for corrections - watch your speed, keep your legs spread, don’t bend your knees, etc. That is the Coaching style of leadership.” “When you started following his instructions properly, he started encouraging you and praising and complimenting you. That is Supporting style of leadership”, he said. “Finally when the instructor was satisfied with your progress, he let you do it on your own and he stopped giving you instructions. This is Delegation style of leadership”, he concluded.

We were all an experienced lot. We had used all said styles of leadership many times. However, none of us consciously selected the leadership style. Many a time, styles overlapped. It was indeed a fruitful session for improving our leadership skills.


We can achieve seemingly impossible tasks with proper encouragement, support and mentoring.

Even topmost executives need support, guidance, help and encouragement when encountering unknown challenges or when moving on an untraversed territory.

Even if we completed the task, we failed measurably. We failed to encourage the five team-members to attempt the task. We did not even try. We could have done it if we had persuaded them. We succeeded individually, but we failed as a team.

Spirit of competition is good but it should be subordinate to team spirit or cause of the institution.

Question for you:
            1.  When was the last time you felt elated having worked in true team spirit?
         2.  When was the last time someone encouraged you to complete a difficult task and you feel grateful to him?

The Situational Leadership Model:

The import of leadership styles and situational leadership fully dawned on me when I read the book “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” by Ken Blanchard, Susan Fowler and Laurence Hawkins.