Contingency Leadership: Understanding Fiedler’s Adaptive Approach

7 minutes
Image: Contingency Leadership

Fred Fiedler ideated in his 1964 article, a concept known as “the contingency theory”. The defining point of the contingency leadership theory is that a leader’s effectiveness in his or her team is reliant on how well the leader adapts to the situation.

Usually, major leadership theories base their strategies on the leader’s personal qualities. This may include their personality traits or strengths and weaknesses. 

Contrastingly, the contingency leadership theory focuses on external factors like the work environment, situations that arise or individuals that the leader is working with.

This theory emphasizes that there isn’t really one best type of leader for every situation. There are several factors that determine whether a leadership style or strategy works.

The relationships between coworkers, the nature of hierarchy in a workplace and even the structure of tasks, determine the overall success of a leader.

Effective leadership comes from adaptability. Leaders need to adjust their approaches based on their circumstances.

Benefits of Contingency Leadership Theory

Contingency leadership theory provides several benefits for leaders and organizations seeking to improve leadership effectiveness:


Contingency leadership theory encourages leaders to reflect on their own leadership style and skills. By understanding their natural tendencies, leaders can play to their strengths while working to improve their weaknesses.

Self-awareness allows leaders to modify their approach when needed to fit different situations. This flexibility can greatly improve leadership success.

Situation Focus with the help of Contingency Leadership

Contingency leadership theory focuses attention on the details of each unique situation. Leaders learn to stop looking for a “one size fits all” approach and instead tailor their leadership to what each context requires.

This situation-based perspective allows leaders to better understand and meet the needs of their team and organization. It leads to better decision making.

Leadership Determination

Contingency leadership theory helps organizations place leaders in roles that best fit their natural leadership orientation.

Rather than forcing a leader into a role they are not suited for, organizations can determine leadership assignments based on the requirements of each situation.

Team Awareness using Contingency Leadership

By learning about contingency leadership, teams gain better insight into why managers make certain choices. This transparency helps build trust.

Team members also learn to be more adaptable and meet leadership halfway rather than making rigid demands.


Contingency leadership theory gives leaders a framework to judge their effectiveness against. It guides their decision making towards approaches that will best motivate followers and get results.

Over time leaders learn better situational judgement about when to adapt their leadership approach. This leads to continuous improvement.

Types of Contingency Leadership Theories

Fiedler Model

The Fiedler model was created by Fred Fiedler. It focuses on two key dimensions – the Least Preferred Coworker (LPC) scale and situational favorableness.

The LPC scale is a questionnaire that measures a leader’s orientation towards relationships or tasks. Based on the LPC score, leaders are categorized as relationship-oriented or task-oriented.

Situational favorableness refers to how favorable a situation is for a leader to influence and control a team. It depends on three factors – leader-member relations, task structure, and position power.

By assessing the LPC score and situational favorableness, the Fiedler model matches leaders to suitable situations.

Situational Leadership Model

The Situational Leadership Model developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard identifies four leadership styles – telling, selling, participating, and delegating. The telling style involves directing team members on what, how, and when to do tasks.

The selling style focuses on explaining decisions and providing guidance. The participating style solicits suggestions and input from the team. Finally, the delegating style turns over responsibility for decision-making and problem-solving to subordinates.

Effective leaders adapt between these four styles based on the competence and commitment level of team members.

Path-Goal Theory 

The Path-Goal theory developed by Robert House identifies four leadership styles – directive, supportive, participative, and achievement-oriented. The directive style provides structure, schedule, and standards.

The supportive style is concerned with employee well-being and satisfaction. The participative style invites team involvement in decision making.

Finally, the achievement-oriented style encourages excellence by setting challenging goals. Effective leaders adapt between these four styles based on the work environment to motivate employees towards their goals.

Decision-Making Model

Vroom and Yetton created a decision-making model that identifies five leadership styles – autocratic, consultative, collaborative, democratic, and laissez-faire. The autocratic style involves the leader making decisions independently.

The consultative style has the leader consulting subordinates individually before deciding. The collaborative style has the leader meeting subordinates as a group before deciding. The democratic style requires consensus among subordinates for decision-making.

Finally, the laissez-faire style gives no guidance and complete freedom to make decisions. Effective leaders choose between these five styles by assessing situational factors.

Applying Contingency Leadership Theory

Effective application of contingency leadership theory involves taking the following steps:

Identify leadership style – Leaders must first understand their own natural leadership style and preferences using assessment tools like the Least Preferred Coworker (LPC) scale. Knowing one’s tendency towards task-oriented or relationship-oriented leadership is key.

Seek team feedback – Once leaders are aware of their inclination, they should ask team members for feedback on their leadership style. This allows them to see their style from the employees’ perspective.

Improve situational favorableness – Based on the context, leaders can take steps to improve the situational favorableness. This involves addressing unfavorable factors related to leader-member relations, task structure, and position power.

Understand employees – Getting to know employees’ strengths, weaknesses, needs and motivations allows leaders to adapt their style to be more directive, supportive, participative etc. based on the individual.

Regular assessment – Situations and employees are dynamic, so leaders must continually reassess the context and their approach. They should connect with employees regularly to ensure their leadership style fits the circumstances.

The key is that leaders remain flexible, self-aware and focused on open communication. This empowers them to adjust their style to drive positive outcomes as conditions evolve. Regular checks for understanding also allows for course correction when needed.

Limitations of Contingency Leadership Theory

Contingency leadership theory provides valuable insights into leadership and organizational dynamics, but it is not without limitations. One significant drawback is the implication that leaders may need to be changed if their style doesn’t fit the situation.

This can be problematic as changing leaders can often be disruptive and demoralizing, potentially undermining organizational stability.

Leaders themselves may resist change if they feel strongly attached to their preferred style, and placing them in unsuitable situations risks failure.

Moreover, developing leader flexibility requires time and resources that organizations may not always have at their disposal, making quick leadership changes impractical.

Another limitation of contingency leadership theory is its insufficient consideration of leader adaptability. The theory primarily focuses on selecting the right leaders for specific situations rather than developing flexible leaders capable of adapting across various contexts.

While matching leadership style to situations has merit, the theory overlooks the potential for leaders to expand their capabilities.

Contemporary leadership research demonstrates that leaders can, with proper training and experience, effectively employ multiple leadership styles and evolve new approaches.

Contingency leadership theory, however, tends to assume that leaders have a fixed leadership style, which may not accurately reflect the dynamic nature of leadership in practice.

Closing Thoughts

As mentioned before, the contingency leadership theory states clearly that a leader’s success depends on the specific circumstance that they are in. Simply put, what works in one particular situation doesn’t necessarily work on another.

The theory suggests that there isn’t really a universally “best” way to lead. A style that’s highly effective in a crisis, for example, may not be useful during periods of stability.

It is important for leaders to first assess the situation that they are in. Leaders need to be self aware as well as be flexible. Anyone taking responsibility for leading a team needs to understand how they impact other members of the team.

To be truly effective as a leader, it is crucial to gain an understanding of the surroundings and at the same time the people in an organization.

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