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What is the Situational Leadership Theory?

Updated on May 17, 2014

Situational Leadership - Hersey-Blanchard Model


Situational Leadership by Ken Blanchard - One Minute Manager

One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard, Ph.D.

Situational Theory Introduction

The Situational Theory "focuses on the characteristics of followers as the important element of the situation, and consequently of determining effective leader behavior" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 71). This theory has been applied broadly in training and improvement for leadership in businesses all over the nation. Situational leadership centers on leadership in situations. The Situational Leadership Theory stresses that different situations demand different kinds of leadership. Adaptation is the key to success in this viewpoint, requiring an individual to adjust to the stipulations of dissimilar circumstances. "Situational leadership stresses that leadership is composed of both a directive and a supportive dimension, and each has to be applied appropriately in a given situation" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 55).

It is important to note that "most social scientists interested in leadership have now abandoned the debate between person or situation in favor of a search for a set of concepts that are capable of dealing both with differences in situations and with differences in leaders" (Vroom & Jago, 2007, Pg. 20).

Situational Theory

Hersey and Blanchard created the situational theory as an extension of The Leadership Grid. "Blake and Mouton of the University of Texas proposed a two-dimensional leadership theory, called The Leadership Grid, that builds on the work of the Ohio State and Michigan studies" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 48). In the Leadership Grid, leaders are rated on a scale based on two decisive factors, including: "the concern for people and concern for production". A grid is formed with the scores generated from these two measures. Included in The Leadership Grid are different styles of leadership, comprising of team management, country club management, authority-compliance management, middle-of-the-road management, and impoverished management.


Situational Based as an Extension of The Leadership Grid

The most effective style according to The Leadership Grid is team management because organization members labor collectively to carry out responsibilities. When chief concern is provided to the workers rather than the outputs, this style is called country club management. "Authority-compliance management occurs when efficiency in operations is the dominant orientation" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 49). Having a moderate amount of emphasis for both people and production is called middle-of-the-road management. Finally, impoverished management "means absence of a leadership philosophy, leaders exert little effort toward interpersonal relationships or work accomplishment" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 49).

Situational Leadership

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Adapting to each Situation

In adapting each situation, the leader must analyze whether employees are capable and dedicated adequately to execute a specific assignment. "Based on the assumption that employees' skills and motivation vary over time, situational leadership suggests that leaders should change the degree to which they are directive or supportive to meet the changing needs of subordinates" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 56). Hersey and Blanchard's theory proposes that employees vary in readiness level. "People low in task readiness, because of little ability or training, or insecurity, need a different leadership style than those who are high in readiness and have good ability, skills, confidence, and willingness to work" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 71). The SLII model, developed by Blanchard and Blancard, is an illustration of the situational approach to leadership. "The model is an extension and refinement of the original situational leadership model developed by Hersey and Blanchard" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 56).

Directing vs. Supporting Behavior

Leadership style defined is the behavior pattern of a person who endeavors to persuade others. "According to the situational theory, a leader can adopt one of four leadership styles, based on a combination of relationship (concern for people) and task (concern for production) behavior" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 71). Concern for people, or having a relationship focus, is referred to as supportive behavior. "Supportive behaviors help group members feel comfortable about themselves, their co-workers, and the situation" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 57). Two-way communication is utilized by interactions that demonstrate social and emotional dealings with others. "Examples of supportive behaviors would be asking for input, problem solving, praising, sharing information about self, and listening" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 57). Concern for task, or having a production focus, is referred to as directive behavior. "Directive behaviors assist group members in goal accomplishment through giving directions, establishing goals and methods of evaluation, setting time lines, defining roles, and showing how the goals are to be achieved" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 57). One-way communication is utilized by interaction that clarifies the what, how, and who for each job.

Situational Leadership - Dr. Paul Hersey

Four Leadership Style Categories

"Leadership styles can be classified further into four distinct categories of directive and supportive behaviors" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 57). These categories include directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating. The first style, directing, is a high-directive-low supportive style. Goal achievement is the focus of this approach with minimum supportive behaviors. A leader in this role will provide specific instructions and then supervise employee's performance vigilantly. Coaching is the second approach and is a high directive-high supportive style. "In this approach, the leader focuses communication on both goal achievement and maintenance of subordinates' socioemotional needs" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 57). The third style is a supportive approach that includes a high-supportive-low directive style. "In this approach, the leader does not focus exclusively on goals but uses supportive behaviors that bring out the employee's skills around the task to be accomplished" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 57). Finally, the fourth style, delegating, includes a low supportive-low directive style. "In this approach, the leader offers less task input and social support, facilitating employees' confidence and motivation in reference to the task" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 58).

Follower Readiness or Development Level of Followers

The second part of the situational leadership model is concerned with the development level of subordinates or otherwise called, follower readiness. "Development level refers to the degree to which subordinates have the competence and commitment necessary to accomplish a given task or activity (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 58). At a high development level, employees experience enjoyment and are secure in their work. On the other hand, when employees are at a low development level, they do not have the skills to complete the task but have the desire to learn. The development level of the situational leadership model is used in order to label employees into four categories, moderate to high competence with a lack of commitment, and finally high competence and high commitment. Depending on the level of development for each employee will determine which leadership style the leader will implement. For example, the directing style works best with employees who demonstrate very low levels of development, the supporting and coaching styles are effective with employees of moderate-to-high development, and the delegating style is effective for employees with very high development. "The leader's style can be tailored to the individual subordinates similar to the leader-member exchange theory" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 74).

Leader – Member Exchange (LMX) Theory


Leader - Member Exchange Theory

The Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) theory is an "individualized leadership model that explores how leader-member relationships develop over time and how the quality of exchange relationships impacts outcomes" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 54). Studies on this theory explored the following: "communication frequency, value agreement, characteristics of followers, job satisfaction, performance, job climate, and commitment" (Daft, Richardson, 2008, Pg. 54). Leaders are typically able to identify with those of "similar backgrounds, interests, and values who demonstrate a high level of competence and interest in the job" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 54). The leader-member exchange relationship has been proven higher with in-group members. The Leader-Member Exchange theory "proposes that this higher-quality relationship will lead to higher performance and greater job satisfaction for in-group members, and research in general supports this idea" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 54).

The results of a high-quality relationship will have positive outcomes for the organization including increased effort and initiative of in-group participants. Three stages are identified that members go through in their working relationship, which include: strangers, acquaintances, and mature relationship. In the stranger stage, "the definition of each group members' role defines what the member and leader expect to do" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 54). In the acquaintance stage, roles are shaped and refined. Finally, during the mature relationship stage, a steady pattern of behavior is reached.

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How does the Situational Approach Work?

"The situational approach is constructed around the idea that employees move forward and backward along the development continuum -- a continuum that represents the relative competence and commitment of subordinates" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 59). Diagnosis is essential, by evaluating where employees are on the development continuum, in order to adapt leadership styles. The first step is to diagnose the nature of the situation, based on the development levels for employees, described above. "Having identified the correct development level, the second task for the leader is to adapt his or her style to the prescribed leadership style represented in the SLII model" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 59). If subordinates are at the first level, the leader should adopt a coaching style. "Because subordinates move back and forth along the development continuum, the leader should change his or her leadership style. "Unlike the trait or contingency approaches, which argue a fixed style for leaders, the situational approach demands that leaders demonstrate a strong degree of flexibility" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 60).


Daft, Richard, L. (2008). The Leadership Experience (4th Ed). Thomson Higher Education: Mason, OH.

Killian, Shaun. (2007). Situational Theory Model by Blanchard & Blanchard. Australian Leadership Development Center. Retrieved on January 24, 2010 from

Northouse, P.E. (2007). Leadership: Theory and Practice (5th Ed). Sage: Thousand Oaks, CA.

Vroom, V.H., & Jago, A.G. (2007). The role of situation in leadership. American Psychologist, 62(1), 17-24.


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    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      Different to my usual reading material but so very interesting. Looking forward to many more.


    • Melinda Longoria profile image

      Melinda Longoria, MSM 2 years ago from Garland, Texas

      Hey Eiddwen, thank you so much for taking the time as always to stop by. :-) I always enjoy reading your comments. I hope you have a wonderful week. Sincerely, Mel

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