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What Is the Situational Theory of Leadership?

July 23, 2015
Borderless Leadership

The situational theory of leadership suggests that no single leadership style is “best.” Instead, it all depends upon the situation at hand and which type of leadership and strategies are best-suited to the task. According to this theory, the most effective leaders are those that are able to adapt their style to the situation and look at cues such as the type of task, the nature of the group, and other factors that might contribute to getting the job done.

Situational leadership theory is often referred to as the Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory, after its developers Dr. Paul Hershey, author of The Situational Leader, and Ken Blanchard, author of One-Minute Manager.

Hershey and Blanchard’s Leadership Styles

Hershey and Blanchard suggested that there are four primary leadership styles:

  • Telling (S1): This style involves the leader telling people what to do and how to do it.
  • Selling (S2): This style involves more back-and-forth between leaders and followers. Leaders “sell” their ideas and message to get group members to buy into the process.
  • Participating (S3): In this approach, the leaders offers less direction and allows members of the group to take a more active role in coming up with ideas and making decisions.
  • Delegating (S4): This style is characterized by a less involved, hands-off approach to leadership. Group members tend to make most of the decisions and take most of the responsibility for what happens.

Leadership and Maturity Levels

So how exactly do leaders and managers determine which style of leadership to use? The right style depends a lot on the maturity level (i.e. the level of knowledge and competence) of the individuals or group.

Hershey and Blanchard’s theory identifies four different levels of maturity

  • M1: Group members lack the knowledge, skills, and willingness to complete the task.
  • M2: Group members are willing and enthusiastic, but lack the ability.
  • M3: Group members have the skills and capability to complete the task, but are unwilling to take responsibility.
  • M4: Group members are highly skilled and willing to complete the task.

The Hershey-Blanchard model suggests that the following leadership styles are the most appropriate for these maturity levels:

  • Low Maturity (M1) – Telling (S1)
  • Medium Maturity (M2) – Selling (S2)
  • Medium Maturity (M3) – Participating (S3)
  • High Maturity (M4) – Delegating (S4)

The SLII Model

The Situational Leadership II (or SLII model) was developed by Kenneth Blanchard and builds on Blanchard and Hershey’s original theory. According to the revised version of the theory, effective leaders must base their behavior on the developmental level of group members for specific tasks. The developmental level is determined by each individual’s level of competence and commitment.

  • Enthusiastic Beginner (D1): High commitment, low competence.
  • Disillusioned Learner (D2): Some competence, but setbacks have led to low commitment.
  • Capable but Cautious Performer (D3): Competence is growing, but level of commitment varies.
  • Self-Reliant Achiever (D4): High competence and commitment.

SLII also suggests that effective leadership is dependent upon two key behaviors: supporting and directing. Directing behaviors include giving specific directions and instructions and attempting to control the behavior of group members. Supporting behaviors include actions such as encouraging subordinates, listening, and offering recognition and feedback.

The theory identifies four basic leadership styles.

  • Directing (S1): High on directing behaviors, low on supporting behaviors.
  • Coaching (S2): High on both directing and supporting behaviors.
  • Supporting (S3): Low on directing behavior and high on supporting behaviors.
  • Delegating (S4): Low on both directing and supporting behaviors.

The main point of SLII theory is that not one of these four leadership styles is best. Instead, an effective leader will match his or her behavior to the developmental skill of each subordinate for the task at hand.

Important Situational Factors

Experts suggest that there are four key contextual factors that leaders must be aware of when making an assessment of the situation.

First, leaders need to consider the relationship between the leaders and the members of the group. Social and interpersonal factors can play a role in determining which approach is best. For example, a group that lacks efficiency and productivity might benefit from a style that emphasizes order, rules, and clearly defined roles. A productive group of highly skilled workers, on the other hand, might benefit from a more democratic style that allows group members to work independently and have input in organizational decisions.

Second, the leader needs to consider the task itself. Tasks can range from simple to complex, but the leaders needs to have a clear idea of exactly what the task entails in order to determine if it has been successfully and competently accomplished.

Third, the level of authority the leader has over group members should also be considered. Some leaders have power conferred by the position itself, such as the capacity to fire, hire, reward, or reprimand subordinates. Other leaders gain power through their relationships with group members, often by gaining respect from group members, offering support to employees, and helping workers feel included in the decision-making process.

Finally, as the Hershey-Blanchard model suggests, leaders need to consider the level of maturity of each individual group member. Maturity level is a measure of both an individual’s ability to complete a task as well as their willingness to complete the task. Assigning a job to a member who is willing but lacks the ability is a recipe for failure.

“Correctly gauging this level of maturity allows the leader to select the most appropriate leadership approach to facilitate self-dependent and self-motivated employees who can accomplished goals,” explain authors Nevarez, Wood, and Penrose in their text Leadership Theory and the Community College: Applying Theory to Practice.


  • “Situational theory assumes that although there are many possible ways of addressing a situation, there is one theory or approach that is more aligned than the others. Using this approach, leaders should consider the intended outcome and compare alternative courses of action in order to select the best approach based on the circumstances impacting the situation. Situational theory relies on an appropriate assessment of circumstances in a given situation. A monostyle approach to leadership is not sufficient in addressing the dynamic, multi-dimensional, and complex nature of social organizations and the actors within them.”
    (Nevarez, C., Wood, J. L., & Penrose, R., 2013)
  • “Followers or subordinates who lack of sense of responsibility or knowledge of a task will need clear instructions from their leader, who will accordingly adopt a directive or ‘telling’ style. As they grow in ability and confidence, so the leader should move to a more relationship-oriented and ultimately delegative (empowering) style. This model assumes a flexibility of style in the leader – their behavioural skills – as well as the ability to diagnose the situation and the style that is needed – their cognitive ability.”
    (Gill, R., 2011)

By Kendra Cherry


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