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.

Concept OverviewSituational Leadership is a leadership theory developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in the late 1960s. It proposes that effective leadership adapts to the readiness or maturity level of followers or team members. In this model, leadership is not a one-size-fits-all approach; instead, leaders must adjust their leadership style based on the specific situation and the capabilities and willingness of their team members. Situational Leadership offers a framework for leaders to tailor their behaviors to the needs of their team, enhancing communication, motivation, and performance.
Key PrinciplesSituational Leadership is guided by several key principles:
1. Flexibility: Effective leaders are adaptable and can employ different leadership styles as needed.
2. Readiness Levels: Followers or team members have varying levels of readiness, ranging from low to high, which determine the appropriate leadership style.
3. Directive and Supportive Behaviors: Leadership behaviors can be categorized as directive (task-oriented) and supportive (relationship-oriented), which can be adjusted based on the situation.
4. Developmental Approach: The goal is to develop followers over time to become more self-reliant and capable.
5. Continuous Assessment: Leaders must continually assess the readiness level of their team members to make appropriate adjustments.
Leadership StylesSituational Leadership defines four primary leadership styles:
1. S1 – Directing: In this style, leaders provide specific instructions and closely supervise tasks. It is suitable for low readiness levels where team members require high direction and support.
2. S2 – Coaching: Leaders offer guidance and support while still providing direction. It is effective when team members have low to moderate readiness and need development.
3. S3 – Supporting: Leaders focus on supporting team members, offering less direction. This style is appropriate for moderately ready team members.
4. S4 – Delegating: In this style, leaders provide minimal direction and support, allowing team members with high readiness to take responsibility for their tasks.
Application ProcessThe Situational Leadership model follows a specific application process:
1. Assess Readiness: Leaders assess the readiness level of their team members by considering their competence and commitment to the task.
2. Choose Leadership Style: Based on the readiness level, leaders select the appropriate leadership style (S1 to S4).
3. Adapt Behaviors: Leaders adapt their behaviors to match the chosen style, providing the necessary direction and support.
4. Monitor Progress: Continuously assess team members’ progress and readiness, adjusting the leadership style as needed.
5. Develop Competence: Over time, the goal is to develop team members’ competence and confidence, allowing for greater delegation and self-reliance.
BenefitsImplementing Situational Leadership offers several benefits:
1. Customization: Leaders can tailor their approach to individual and team needs.
2. Improved Communication: Clarity in leadership style enhances communication and understanding.
3. Higher Team Performance: Matching leadership style to readiness levels fosters growth and productivity.
4. Development of Leaders: This model encourages leadership development among team members.
5. Adaptive Leadership: It prepares leaders to be adaptable in varying situations and with different team members.
Challenges and RisksChallenges in applying Situational Leadership include the need for leaders to accurately assess team members’ readiness levels, the potential for overreliance on one leadership style, and the requirement for continuous monitoring and adjustment. Risks include misalignment of leadership style, leading to reduced motivation or performance.

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.

Key Highlights

  • Situational Leadership Theory: Developed by Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard in the late 1960s, the theory proposes that there is no one-size-fits-all leadership style that works in every situation. Instead, effective leaders must adapt their style based on the unique circumstances they are facing.
  • Adaptation to Situations: Situational leadership emphasizes that leaders should adjust their management approach according to the specific needs of the task, individuals, and the organization. The focus is on tailoring leadership behaviors to the situation at hand.
  • Consideration of Variables: Effective situational leaders take into account various factors such as individuals’ background, personality, learning style, experience, motivation, and ego. These variables impact employee competence and commitment, which can vary based on task complexity, performance areas, and the level of support needed.
  • Four Behavioral Leadership Styles:
    • Telling (S1): This style involves high task behavior and low to moderate relationship behavior. Leaders provide clear instructions and guidance, suitable for inexperienced or unmotivated team members.
    • Selling (S2): High in both task and relationship behavior, leaders provide direction while also engaging in open dialogue to explain the importance of tasks and encourage participation.
    • Participating (S3): This style is characterized by low task behavior and high relationship behavior. Leaders involve team members in decision-making and planning, suitable for capable but cautious employees.
    • Delegating (S4): Low in both task and relationship behavior, leaders provide a vision and decision-making authority to competent and motivated team members.
  • Leadership Styles’ Impact: The situational leadership styles progress from high guidance (S1) to high empowerment (S4). As leaders move from one style to another, there is an increase in employee autonomy, motivation, and competence.
  • Key Takeaways:
    • Situational leadership rejects the idea of a one-size-fits-all leadership style.
    • The four leadership styles are telling (S1), selling (S2), participating (S3), and delegating (S4), each suited to different situations and team dynamics.
    • Effective situational leaders analyze the situation, consider individual factors, and choose the appropriate leadership style to achieve desired outcomes.

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.


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RASCI Matrix

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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

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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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