Situational Leadership In A Nutshell

Situational leadership is based on situational leadership theory. Developed by authors Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard in the late 1960s, the theory’s fundamental belief is that there is no single leadership style that is best for every situation. Situational leadership is based on the belief that no single leadership style is best. In other words, the best style depends on the situation at hand.

Understanding situational leadership

Instead, situational leaders must adapt their management style to each unique situation or task to meet the needs of individuals and the organization.

To that end, leaders must consider the background, personality, learning style, experience, motivators, and ego of individuals in the teams they manage. 

The above variables influence employee competence and commitment, which themselves vary according to the complexity of the task, different performance areas, and the level of required support or direction from the leader themselves.

These variables (and how they interact) are explained in more detail in the next section.

The four situational leadership styles

Hersey and Blanchard developed a matrix with four distinct behavioral leadership styles. Before we delve into the styles, it is worth explaining that each is based on two factors:

  1. Task behavior – the extent to which leaders tell subordinates what to do, how to do it, when it needs to be completed, and where it needs to be performed, and
  2. Relationship behavior – the extent to which leaders engage in open dialogue with their followers, actively listen, and offer reinforcement, reward, or recognition for task-related progress.

Various degrees of task and relationship behavior yield the following leadership styles:

1- Telling (S1)

This style is characterized by moderate to high task behavior and low to moderate relationship behavior. Leaders tell subordinates what to do and how to do it and use their experience to make decisions related to the timely completion of tasks.

S1 is seen as more of a short-term approach designed to create movement. It is well suited to employees that are inexperienced or otherwise unmotivated to take action.

2 – Selling (S2)

The S2 style is characterized by high amounts of both task and relationship behavior. Leaders dictate the what, how, and when of a task, but are more open to discussing why it is important and how it fits into the company’s objectives.

This increased collaboration and feedback boosts team member participation, increases their skillset, and can be used to encourage buy-in. 

3 – Participating (S3)

The S3 style is useful for teams who are suitably experienced to participate in decision-making and planning. Leaders adopt a more democratic, “follower-driven” leadership style which is fundamentally different from the S1 and S2 styles. As a result, the S3 style is an approach that is low on task behavior and high on relationship behavior. 

Employees under this style are capable but cautious. They may possess demonstratable task proficiency but are wary of performing it on their own. Others can perform a task effectively but have lost the motivation to do so. In either case, the leader must identify the source of the performance obstacle with open-ended questions that generate a viable solution.

4 – Delegating (S4)

The Delegating S4 style is for situations where team members have a high level of intrinsic motivation and competence. Leaders set a vision, establish the desired outcomes, and attribute clear decision-making authority and task responsibility to certain individuals. 

The S4 style is characterized by low amounts of task and relationship behavior.

Key takeaways

  • Situational leadership is based on the belief that no single leadership style is best. In other words, the best style depends on the situation at hand.
  • Hersey and Blanchard developed a matrix with four distinct behavioral leadership styles. Each cell of the matrix represents four leadership styles characterized by different degrees of task and relationship behavior.
  • The four styles of situational leadership are telling (S1), selling (S2), participating (S3), and delegating (S4). As one moves from S1 to S4, there is an increase in employee motivation, competence, and autonomy.

Additional Related Concepts

Agile Leadership

Agile leadership is the embodiment of agile manifesto principles by a manager or management team. Agile leadership impacts two important levels of a business. The structural level defines the roles, responsibilities, and key performance indicators. The behavioral level describes the actions leaders exhibit to others based on agile principles. 

Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership is a model used by leaders to help individuals adapt to complex or rapidly changing environments. Adaptive leadership is defined by three core components (precious or expendable, experimentation and smart risks, disciplined assessment). Growth occurs when an organization discards ineffective ways of operating. Then, active leaders implement new initiatives and monitor their impact.

Delegative Leadership

Developed by business consultants Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey in the 1960s, delegative leadership is a leadership style where authority figures empower subordinates to exercise autonomy. For this reason, it is also called laissez-faire leadership. In some cases, this type of leadership can lead to increases in work quality and decision-making. In a few other cases, this type of leadership needs to be balanced out to prevent a lack of direction and cohesiveness of the team.

Distributed Leadership

Distributed leadership is based on the premise that leadership responsibilities and accountability are shared by those with the relevant skills or expertise so that the shared responsibility and accountability of multiple individuals within a workplace, bulds up as a fluid and emergent property (not controlled or held by one individual). Distributed leadership is based on eight hallmarks, or principles: shared responsibility, shared power, synergy, leadership capacity, organizational learning, equitable and ethical climate, democratic and investigative culture, and macro-community engagement.


Micromanagement is about tightly controlling or observing employees’ work. Although in some cases, this management style might be understood, especially for small-scale projects, generally speaking, micromanagement has a negative connotation mainly because it shows a lack of trust and freedom in the workplace, which leads to adverse outcomes.

RASCI Matrix

A RASCI matrix is used to assign and then display the various roles and responsibilities in a project, service, or process. It is sometimes called a RASCI Responsibility Matrix. The RASCI matrix is essentially a project management tool that provides important clarification for organizations involved in complex projects.

Organizational Structure

An organizational structure allows companies to shape their business model according to several criteria (like products, segments, geography and so on) that would enable information to flow through the organizational layers for better decision-making, cultural development, and goals alignment across employees, managers, and executives. 

Tactical Management

Tactical management involves choosing an appropriate course of action to achieve a strategic plan or objective. Therefore, tactical management comprises the set of daily operations that support long strategy delivery. It may involve risk management, regular meetings, conflict resolution, and problem-solving.

High-Performance Management

High-performance management involves the implementation of HR practices that are internally consistent and aligned with organizational strategy. Importantly, high-performance management is a continual process where several different but integrated activities create a performance management cycle. It is not a process that should be performed once a year and then hidden in a filing cabinet.

Scientific Management

Scientific Management Theory was created by Frederick Winslow Taylor in 1911 as a means of encouraging industrial companies to switch to mass production. With a background in mechanical engineering, he applied engineering principles to workplace productivity on the factory floor. Scientific Management Theory seeks to find the most efficient way of performing a job in the workplace.

Change Management


TQM Framework

The Total Quality Management (TQM) framework is a technique based on the premise that employees continuously work on their ability to provide value to customers. Importantly, the word “total” means that all employees are involved in the process – regardless of whether they work in development, production, or fulfillment.

Agile Project Management

Agile Management
Agile Project Management (AgilePM) seeks to bring order to chaotic corporate environments using several tools, techniques, and elements of the project lifecycle. Fundamentally, agile project management aims to deliver maximum value according to specific business priorities in the time and budget allocated. AgilePM is particularly useful in situations where the drive to deliver is greater than the perceived risk.

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