Situational Leadership Model: A Guide for Modern Managers

7 minutes
Image: Situational Leadership Style

Situational leadership theory states that there is no single best leadership style.

Effective leaders adapt their style according to the development level and needs of their team members.

This adaptability allows them to delegate or direct appropriately and avoid micro-managing.

Originally developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in 1969, situational leadership emphasizes that leadership needs to be aligned with the competence and commitment of followers.

Situational Leadership was developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in 1969.

This leadership makes a point that leadership needs to be aligned with the competence and commitment of followers.

As team members gain skills and confidence, leaders can shift their style from highly directive to more empowering.

This helps facilitate growth opportunities while still maintaining productivity.

Background and History

Situational leadership theory was developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in 1969. It is based on Reddin’s 3-D management style theory and the developmental maturity levels of subordinates. 

The theory was first introduced in 1969 in the Training and Development Journal article “Life Cycle Theory of Leadership” by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard.

After further refinements, they published it as Situational Leadership Theory in their 1982 book “Management of Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources”.

The key premise of the theory is that there is no single best leadership style.

Effective leaders adapt their style to the maturity (“maturity” here refers to the capacity to set high but attainable goals, willingness and ability to take responsibility, and relevant education and/or experience) of the individual or group they are attempting to lead and influence.

Key Principles

The main principles and assumptions of situational leadership theory are:

  • Leadership effectiveness depends on the situation and the level of maturity of the followers. There is no single best leadership style for every situation.
  • Effective leaders are flexible and able to adapt their styles based on the development needs of their team members.
  • Follower readiness – in terms of ability and willingness to accomplish a specific task – must be continually assessed and leadership style adapted accordingly.
  • Communication between leaders and followers is critical in helping leaders accurately diagnose the development levels of team members.

The focus is on leadership in one-on-one relationships, rather than at the group or organizational level.

Four Leadership Styles

Situational leadership theory categorizes four main leadership styles that can be applied based on the development level of the followers. Leaders need to assess the competence and commitment of their team members and adapt their style accordingly. 

1. Directing

The directing style is a highly directive, one-way style focused on giving instructions. This style is best used when team members lack competence but are enthusiastic and committed.

The leader defines the roles and tasks and closely supervises performance. This style helps inexperienced members learn what is expected.

2. Coaching 

The coaching style provides direction while also being highly supportive. This style is best when team members have some competence but lack commitment and confidence.

The leader continues to direct and closely supervise tasks but also explains decisions, solicits suggestions, and supports progress. This style helps build capability and self-esteem.

3. Supporting

The supporting style shifts the focus to facilitation as team members gain more competence. This style is optimal when members have skills but lack motivation.

The leader facilitates problem-solving, listens, provides recognition, and encourages autonomous decision-making. This style helps empower members to work independently.

4. Delegating 

The delegating style provides minimal supervision as members can work autonomously. This is used when members are highly skilled, motivated, and confident.

The leader delegates responsibility and decisions while continuing to monitor progress at critical checkpoints. This empowers members to exercise creativity and discretion.

The directive behaviors are reduced and supportive behaviors are increased as each individual demonstrates readiness through competence and commitment.

This allows leaders to provide what members need most to continue developing.

The Right Leadership Style at the Right Time

According to Blanchard and Hersey, situational leadership styles are most effective when paired with the following four stages of employee development:

  1. Low Competence, High Commitment: In this stage, employees are enthusiastic but lack skills. Leaders should adopt a directing style, providing clear instructions and close supervision. They need to break tasks into manageable steps, offer frequent feedback, and provide training. The focus is on building skills while maintaining the employee’s initial enthusiasm and commitment to learning.
  1. Some Competence, Low Commitment: Here, employees have developed some skills but may feel overwhelmed or discouraged. Leaders should use a coaching style, offering guidance and encouragement. They should explain decisions, solicit suggestions, and provide ongoing support. The goal is to boost confidence, reinforce progress, and help employees overcome challenges that may be affecting their commitment.
  1. High Competence, Variable Commitment: At this stage, employees are skilled but may lack confidence or motivation. Leaders should employ a supporting style, focusing on collaboration and shared decision-making. They should listen actively, facilitate problem-solving, and provide recognition. The aim is to build self-reliance and restore commitment by involving the employee more in decision-making processes.
  1. High Competence, High Commitment: For highly skilled and motivated employees, leaders should use a delegating style. They should assign responsibilities, and be available for consultation, but generally step back. The focus is on empowering these employees, providing resources and support as needed, and recognizing their achievements. This approach fosters autonomy and continued high performance.

Benefits of Situational Leadership

Situational leadership provides many advantages for managers and organizations. Some key benefits include:

  • Adapts and modifies according to the situation: Situational leadership’s primary strength lies in its flexibility. Leaders who employ this style can quickly assess the needs of their team and the demands of the task at hand, and then adjust their approach accordingly.
  • Creates a better work environment for the team members: By tailoring leadership style to the needs of individual team members and specific situations, situational leadership fosters a more positive and productive work environment.
  • Adjusts leadership style to best fit any given situation: Situational leadership recognizes that different scenarios require different leadership approaches. This advantage allows leaders to be highly effective across various contexts.
  • Builds a strong relationship with team members: Situational leadership promotes strong relationships between leaders and team members by demonstrating the leader’s commitment to understanding and supporting each individual’s needs.
  • Enhances team performance: By applying the most appropriate leadership style for each situation and team member, situational leadership can significantly boost overall team performance.

Closing Thoughts

Situational leadership is a powerful tool for modern managers.

It teaches us that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to leading people.

Instead, good leaders change their style based on what their team members need and how ready they are for different tasks.

The four styles – directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating – give leaders a range of options.

By matching these styles to their team’s development stages, managers can help their employees grow and succeed.

This approach creates a better work environment, builds stronger relationships, and improves team performance.

Situational leadership isn’t always easy. It requires leaders to pay close attention to their team and be willing to change their approach.

But the benefits are worth it. Teams led this way tend to be more motivated, skilled, and productive.

Remember, the key is flexibility. As your team members grow and change, so should your leadership style.

By adapting to different situations and individual needs, you can bring out the best in your team and achieve great results together.

Situational leadership isn’t just a theory – it’s a practical way to become a more effective leader in today’s changing workplace.

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