The significance of theory in both qualitative and quantitative data analysis can hardly be overrated (Lengnick-Hall & Clark, 2012). Every single step must be made based on a specific theoretical postulate. However, the relationship between a theory and its practical application is much more complicated than an experiential confirmation of the already existing rules and principles (Barr, 2010). This paper will address the actual relationship between theory and practice and how these relationships affect the situational leadership process, including the discussion of the reflective skills and the theory–practice integration, as well as the nature and aim of practice and theory (Teunissen, 2010).
The issue of the relationship between practice and theory remains one of the most widely researched fields (Vogel, 2010). Numerous theories regarding the connection between practice and theory have been developed, and even more will be sparked by the findings of already existing studies. More to the point, a range of studies regarding the transfer from theory to practice are devoted to the issue of situational leadership and its use (Sentell, 2013).
Indeed, as Chemsky (2012) explains, establishing the connection between theory and practice is very hard in that they “emerge from different intellectual places” (Chemsky, 2012, p. 2). According to Chemsky, to transfer from theory to practice, one must split the project in question into three key phases, which are the design phase, the pre-intermediation or intermediation phase, and the reporting phase. As long as the actions are carried out in the sequence provided above, major misunderstandings can be avoided in the process of putting theory into practice (Chemsky, 2012, p. 9).
Another study that allows addressing the problem of theory implementation, the research conducted by Hatlevik (2011) should be discussed thoroughly. Hatlevik points at the necessity to develop reflective knowledge in order to transfer from learning theory to solving practical problems.
Speaking of which, Natius (2012) addresses the issue of developing reflective skills directly. It is quite peculiar that the author does not even consider the possibility of any other relationships between theory and practice existing (Natius, 2012a); instead, he states in a very straightforward fashion that curiosity, observation and transformation are the necessary steps towards developing the reflective skills, which will assist one in putting a theory into practice (Natius, 2012a).
Mays (2009) insists that without self-identity development, the transgression from theory to practice is unattainable. Moreover, Mays specifies that practice is informed by reflections (Mays, 2009). Montaño, however, does not agree with Mays, claiming that the process of overcoming the postmodern fragmentation of theory is what makes the transfer possible (Montaño, 2012).
Reflective skills acquisition has been analyzed quite thoroughly by Scully (2010). Scully points at the necessity to “engage in the reflection-on-action process” (Scully, 2010, p. 94) in order to attain measurable results and achieve success. Other academic studies also emphasize the need to attain experience in order to form the values and standards required to carry out the theory-to-practice transfer successfully. Neville and Adam provide a very interesting overview of the methods, with the help of which people can develop reflective skills. According to the researchers, games and interactive tasks are the key to successful training of reflective skills (Neville & Adam, 2013). Indeed, the learner’s focus often determines the outcomes of the training activities (Ousey & Gallagher, 2007). Tourmen (2009) develops the idea, suggesting that the experience, in the course of which reflective skills are acquired, should be attained form the analysis of the existing evaluation theories. Thus, the leader will be able to cognize their process of decision making and, therefore, learn to evaluate the existing options and navigate between the existing choices.
Other researchers refer the audience to the Socratic Caesura to address the issue of the gap between theory and practice (Pinar & Grumet, 2011). Westerlund (2011) and Wilson (2008) expand this idea by spurring the creation of learning opportunities.
Speaking of reflective skills as an integral part of implementing theoretical postulates in order to solve a practical problem, Branch’s study should be mentioned as well. The research features a rather thorough overview of the very phenomenon of reflective learning. According to the author, the application of theoretical postulates to practice is related directly to developing specific reflexes, known as the reflective skills, and the following transition to the learning style known as the reflective learning (Branch, 2010). Branch makes it obvious that the process of practical application of the acquired skills demands that a specific role model should be introduced to the learner. As a result, the so-called “active” and “passive” role models are provided to the learners to cement the stages of practical steps to be taken to use the learned theories.
Fook (2000) goes somewhat further by establishing the links between not only theory and practice, but also the process of research itself. Thus, Fook provides a model of the knowledge creation process by depicting the transgression from theory to practice. As a result, Fook comes up with a list of requirements towards the methodology of the research process, as well as the practical implementation of theory.
Another study that deserves to be mentioned as the cornerstone research for understanding the practical implementation of the theory postulates, the study carried out by Grancik (2010) should be considered closer. Though the author does not consider the process of transgression from research to practice from an entirely neutral viewpoint and prefers to view the issue from the perspective of a teacher, he does make a range of valid commentaries on the problems related to the process in question. For example, Grancik establishes the fact that, for one to progress from studying the theoretical material to learning the specifics of its practical application, the help of a mentor is required (Grancik, 2010).
French’s study might seem somewhat unrelated to the issue in question, yet it renders a very important element of the transfer from theory to practice. Apart from outlining the key specifics of the process, the author also specifies the behavioral changes required for the transgression to take place. As French (2012) explains, the shift from acquiring specific knowledge to learning how to use it in practice, French develop a behavioral model that will contribute to the success of the procedure.
Crawley-Henry also prefers analyzing the specifics of practical implementation of the theoretical knowledge through the prism of a particular experience, which in this case is represented by a qualitative research. According to the author’s conclusions, an ethnographic approach can be seen as the solution of the major problems emerging as the inconsistencies between theoretical knowledge and practice emerge (Crawley-Henry, 2009).
Graven (2013) places the issue of theory-t-practice transfer in an educational context. Another study that points at the necessity for a mentor to supervise the process, this research shows that the empirical stage starts with the recognition of the zone of proximal development (Graven, 2013, p. 4).
Haigh (2008) approaches the problem from a slightly different angle. The researcher states that the gap between practice and theory exists. More importantly, it grows bigger. As a result of the lack of collaboration between these disciplines, a range of tools is required to switch from theory to practice and vice versa.
Pissourios (2013) not only acknowledges the existence of the aforementioned gap between theory and practice, but also, in fact, provides the means to cross it. As Pissourios’s research results show, the gap can be eliminated by defining the reasons that produced it (Pissourios, 2013).
It should be kept in mind that not all theorists consider the relationships between theory and practice split by a giant gap; quite on the contrary, a range of scholars views the differences between the theoretical and the practical guidelines as natural and,, therefore, consider what others believe to be inconsistencies as the manifestation of harmony between theory and practice (Schwandt, 2013).
Relationship between Theory and Practice
It should be noted that talking about the relationship between theory and practice is impossible without touching upon the phenomenon of reflective skills and its role in the process of transfer from learning theoretical material to the practical application of the latter. The development of reflective skills has a lot to do with the concept of situational leadership, which will be discussed below.
The process of reflective skills acquisition becomes even more complicated as it becomes evident that a future leader needs a role model to follow in order to utilize the knowledge an skills acquired in the process of learning.
Active role modeling consists of a series of steps that can be applied in whole or in part when the teacher recognizes a learning opportunity (‘‘teachable moment’’). The role modeling teacher points out skills that will be utilized in interacting with a patient. The skills become transparent to observing learners. (Branch, 2010, p. 330)
Though Branch develops his theory by building his argument around a specific issue in a defined field, i.e., healthcare, the reasons that he offers to consider also work in other realms. In fact, the “teaching moment” may possibly work in any environment, including healthcare, business, art, or any other realm.
As a matter of fact, the actual ties between theory and practice may prove to be not as close as one might have thought them to be. As Fitzgerald explains, a range of scientists and academics refuse to acknowledge the connection between theoretical material and the practical results as an explicit one. Instead, the supposition regarding the two elements being related through the significance of practice for research: “But is relevance to practice an important issue for IS researchers? One might presume so since some steps have been taken to try ensure that IS research is more relevant to practice” (Fitzgerald, 2013, p. 2).
Nevertheless, it seems that considering research and practice – or, to be more exact, theory and practice – as two separate concepts, which can be bridged once an experiment is carried out. As a result, it becomes acceptable to envision theory and practice as two concepts separated by a gap. The gap, which, as it turns out, may exist between the theory and its practical implementation, can be addressed by a range of methods, the key one being the engagement with practice (Irwin & Ryan, 2013).
Administering theoretical premises to their practical usage can also be fraught with major difficulties because of the possible communication issues, which may emerge once the recipient of the message fails to understand the sender. Though rather rare, the given misconception may occur when the sender uses specific terminology, which serves as a block on the way to deivering the meaning of the message to the recipient, as Christiansen explains:
[…] on the one hand, public administration theorists need to use language that utilizes specialized vocabulary and terms of art, just as theorists of every specialized profession do in communicating with other experts in their respective field. On the other hand, this specialized vocabulary, as well as allusions to several equally specialized canons of literature, continues to act as a barrier to the dissemination of theoretical content to many public administration practitioners. (Christiansen, 2012, p. 478)
In terms of a leadership style choice, the options that exist nowadays are truly ample; there are a range of leadership styles to pick depending on the internal and external factors (Thompson & Vecchio, 2009), as well as the people, whose actions need to be coordinated, the goals of the project and the type of the latter (Mayer, Winter & Mohr, 2012). More to the point, as researches have shown, the choice of a leadership style depends mostly on the goal and objectives that are pursued in the project in question, since different leadership styles offer different tools (Papworth & Boak, 2009), which provide the leader with the capability of regulating specific problems and dealing with particular conflict:
In interethnic bargaining situations, or civil conflict situations where the parties have deeply antagonistic relations, efforts to reach some sort of political accommodation via negotiations may be thwarted by the ‘‘domestic’’ equivalent of the security dilemma because even defensive measures are viewed as offensive and threatening. (Babbit & Hampson, 2011, p. 49)
As the studies above have shown, transformational leadership seems to be the most common choice for most organizations (Giltinane, 2013). The reasons for this choice are quite obvious – transformational leadership allows for changing people’s attitude towards the project and their role in it, allowing for professional, personal and ethical values to be developed in the process. However, people often underrate the power of the situational leadership. Though not as powerful in terms of shaping people’s attitude towards their roles in the team, it still helps locate the problem and find the proper tools for addressing it adequately. In contrast to the rest of the leadership styles, situational leadership can be used to solve unique problem, whereas even transformational one, not to mention less efficient forms of leadership, is designed to approach stock problems with stock solutions (Thompson, 2010).
Even the phenomenon of the situational leadership is, in fact, very hard to nail down. Various sources interpret the given concept in different ways, and, though these interpretations share a range of points of contact, they still show the concept of situational leadership in different ways. Naturally, many sources focus on the role of the situational leadership, pointing out the fact that it is used to approach very specific conflicts (Maltz, 2012). Other sources interpret the strategy known as the situational leadership as the means to prove that there is no silver bullet and that the golden mean between all existing leadership theories must be sought (Padam, 2010). Another way to approach the situational leadership concept is to look at it through the lens of employee investment and the professional growth of the staff. Indeed, a range of companies prefer to invest into their current employees instead of searching for better staff with every single advance that the company makes. As a result, the corporate values shift towards encouraging the professional evolution of the employees (Stenmark & Mumford, 2011). The staff will start developing the skills that will be required to meet the new quality standards; as a result, new principles of coordinating their actions will be required, which will mean that the situational leadership must be adopted as the key to coordinating the actions of the staff.
While the aforementioned definitions allow the readers to have a general idea of what situational leadership is, they still fail to nail down the essence of the phenomenon, mainly because the phenomenon itself is prone to changing depending on the situation in which it is being used. Indeed, judging by the definitions provided above, situational leadership can be viewed as a strategy, a tool, a model, and a philosophy, i.e., a compilation of the existing approaches.
Therefore, it begs the question whether the phenomenon in question is actually definable. It seems that the complexity of the concept of situational leadership pertains to the very nature of the notion, i.e., the fact that the situational leadership is a universal device that can be shaped in order to approach literally any situation. As a result, the amount of possible suggestions for the definition of the phenomenon of the situational leadership is, weirdly enough, restricted by the versatility of its nature (Humphreys, Zhao, Ingram & Basham, 2010).
In fact, the very existence of situational leadership can be doubted given the fact that it exists only as a range of choices between other leadership options. Indeed, the idea of situational leadership does not involve the use of a specific leadership strategy or a philosophy, like the authoritative or a transformational type of leadership does – instead, it merely allows for switching between the rest of the leadership styles. As a set of concepts and rules, situational leadership does not exist– it comes to life only once an emergency situation erupts, and it only takes the shape of another leadership style at that. Situational leadership is not a style, but a manner of navigating between the rest of the styles, which may lead to questioning the reasonability for the situational leadership to exist. Indeed, it does not seem reasonable to develop a separate leadership style out of a suggestion to use the existing ones with regard for the context in which the conflict has evolved.
Nevertheless, it can be assumed that situational leadership should be defined based on the feature that sets it apart from the rest of leadership styles. i.e., the fact that situational leadership allows for shifting between different leadership styles.
Critical Evaluation of Situational Leadership
Much like the definition of the situational leadership style, its efficacy and value, as well as the set of tools that it offers to its users, have spurred a range of discussions for a number of reasons. Even supposing that situational leadership can exist on its own as a legitimate leadership style, the situational leadership approach still has a range of problems, which become quite obvious even at the stage of setting the leadership strategy, and which come out in full blue as the strategy is being put into practice (DeGraw, 2013).
With the problems of putting a theory into practice, which have been outlined above, the major issues of the situational leadership application start snowballing with every step that the leader of a project takes (Gro, Torvald & Stale, 2013). Indeed, it would be naïve to expect that the reflective skills, which are required for a successful adoption of the strategy, will appear out of nowhere. Indeed, when considering the specifics of the situational leadership strategy closer, one will notice inevitably that it does not include one of the major elements, which makes most leadership styles so efficient, i.e., the exact guidelines for dealing with particular situations. The flexibility, which may seem a breath of fresh air at first, may soon become a difficult choice between equally reasonable options (Edwards & Christian, 2010).
The fact that the specified type of leadership makes the transfer from theory to practice somewhat complicated should also be brought up as the main weakness of this leadership style. While in some way, the amount of avenues to choose from facilitates the process of defining the best strategy possible, it also makes the process of choice very complex. Even though, according to the Hershey–Blanchard leadership theory, there are only four styles that can actually be identified as legitimate leadership approaches, and the rest of them are the in-between alternatives, the range of options is still too grand to choose from (Meyer & Dalal, 2010).
Finally, the issue of the reflective skills should also be mentioned when talking about the major weaknesses of the leadership style in question. Seeing how, to be an efficient leader, one needs to develop the reflexive actions, which will help one play the role of a leader properly, it is very doubtful that the situational leadership principles may in any way affect one’s evolution as a leader, seeing how in every conflict, new skills have to be used. In other words, the situational approach does not allow one for developing the required skills to begin with (Chiu & Chen, 2012). Clearly one of the major problems, the given feature of the situational approach goes against the basic ideas regarding the implementation of theoretical postulates, which has been discussed above.
One might make a very slim argument that reflective skills are not the essential part of being a leader; to be more exact, reflective skills inform the leader, but they do not define one. To be an efficient leader, one must make a conscious choice between the existing variety of approaches instead of resorting to the reflective actions that might harm the people involved to an even greater extent (Melchers, Bösser, Hartstein, & Kleinmann, 2012).
At this point, the argument regarding the intuitional approach towards leadership versus the one backed up with reasonable arguments deserves to be mentioned. As the literature review carried out above shows, opinions on the leader’s decision making process differ considerably – some say that a complicated decision must be made only after a careful analysis of all the factors involved and all the available options; others state that embracing every single factor and outcome is practically impossible (Randolph-Seng & Gardner, 2012) and, therefore, a leader must rely on their intuition, or the factors that they have spotted unconsciously and that affect the choice that a leader makes: “Decisions are made by undertaking pre-decisional work, called differentiation, where competing options are considered using a range of strategies to judge options and their attributes in terms of their attractiveness and importance” (Elwyn, 2010, 569).
In the latter case, the use of reflective skills is rather undesirable, since the routine actions may conflict with the choice that the leader has already made on a subconscious level. Hence, it could be argued that the application of the situational leadership postulates does not require the use of reflective skills, which clearly denies the basic principles of the transition from theory to practice, as the literature overview above shows.
In addition, ethical considerations may also turn into a major obstacle on the way to efficient decision making process and retrieving fruitful results: when confronted with ethical dilemmas, practitioners have traditionally been guided by that particular country’s relevant professional associations or psychology registration board. (du Preez & Goedeke, 2013, p. 44)
With all the problems that the inconsistencies of theorizing and implementing entail in mind, the situational leadership approach still has its obvious strengths. Bringing up the aforementioned Hershey–Blanchard situational leadership theory, one must point at the fact that reasoning, which justifies the use of the situational leadership style is still quite legitimate. To be more specific, the Hershey–Blanchard theory makes a very valid point by stressing that in the present day environment, it is nearly impossible to be an efficient leader without taking the specifics of the members of the team into account (Smith, 2013). Seeing how each team member most likely needs a unique motivation enhancing approach and encouragement, it is necessary to switch between different leadership styles so that each of the team members should use their potential to the maximum (Peretomode, 2012). As a result, the key postulates of the situational leadership are crucial to follow when coordinating the actions of several people at once.
In addition, the flexibility of the situational leadership should be brought up as one of the doubtless positive aspects. As it has been mentioned above, the very existence of the situational leadership style is often considered as a major dent in the leadership theory; seeing how the necessity to switch between different leadership styles is rather clear, the creation of the theory that explains the aforementioned necessity might seem somewhat redundant. However, even this dubious detail can be explained by the fact that situational leadership provides the tools for tying the existing leadership approaches together.
Therefore, it could be argued that the situational leadership approach lacks precision and needs better instructions, as well as a more careful development of its methodology. Nevertheless, the situational leadership approach should be seen as a valid method of managing a team of people, with a legitimate theoretical foundation to be based on and a variety of tools for the practical implementation of the theoretical postulates. In spite of a considerable lack of clarity, which its methods suffer from, the situational leadership approach can be used as a perfect means to enhance motivation among the team members, as well as address the unique complexities, which a team may be experiencing in specific circumstances. Situational leadership makes the transition from theory to practice much easier in that it makes the implementation of the planned actions possible in any environment, no matter how unfavorable the external or internal factors might be (Montagno, 2012).
When it comes to defining the avenues for the practical implementation of the situational leadership postulates, one must admit that the development of reflective skills is crucial to the success of the procedure. However, the specifics of the situational leadership as a theory and as a strategy does not allow for developing the corresponding skills – instead, it demands that the leader should be flexible enough to adopt the method=s that are required for solving a specific conflict. Herein the key issue with the situational leadership lies. To address the issue concerning the practical use of the theory of situational leadership, one must consider the possibility of acquiring the skills that pertain to the rest of the leadership styles. Thus, when applying the theory of the situational leadership to practice, one will have an array of tools, which one will be free to choose from. Therefore, it can be suggested that the reflective skills should be acquired prior to the execution of the principles of the situational leadership theory. To be more exact, a learner must cognize and apply the principles of the rest of the leadership theories, including the transformational one before trying to execute the situational leadership strategies.
Situational leadership is one of the leadership styles that can even hardly be defined as such. It hinges between a standard leadership theory and an entire philosophy of leadership, therefore, making the process of transfer between theory and practice inordinately complicated. Though different opinions regarding the means to develop the required reflexive skills have been spawned over time, they still failed to solve the key dilemma, i.e., the production of the skills that may help in approaching random conflicts. As a result, coming prepared with well developed leadership skills collected from the rest of the leadership theories and being able to analyze the external and internal factors to choose from the wide range of these skills can be viewed as the only possible solution for the dilemma concerning the application of the theoretical principles. It should be kept in mind that the reflective skills, which are crucial for other leadership styles when it comes to using the theoretical principles, seem to be completely absent from the framework of the situational leadership (Tourmen, 2009). Consequently, a leader must possess a wide variety of reflective skills. Despite the popular opinion that a leader must follow their intuition when making a choice concerning a unique conflict, developing various skills seems much more reasonable, seeing how intuition can be interpreted as the knowledge stemming from a vast experience, i.e., something that a leader, who has only been recently assigned for the position, does not have to begin with. Hence, the situational leadership theory-to-practice transfer fits the traditional framework of practical application of theoretical material.
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