“Effective leaders need to be flexible, and must adapt themselves according to the situation.” Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard

The above quote defines the core idea behind one of today’s most talked about leadership theories: Situational Leadership®. The model, which celebrates a multitude of leadership styles instead of a single solution, has been considered a transformative and essential new way to manage and to lead.

Situational leadership header(1)

 

But what does it mean to be a situational leader? Is it always beneficial to change your approach to leading the troops? In this guide, we’ll examine the development of situational leadership® theory, study its core elements and discover the qualities a situational leader must showcase. Finally, we’ll outline the pros and cons of the leadership theory and examine its power through four examples.

UNDERSTANDING THE DEVELOPMENT OF SITUATIONAL LEADERSHIP®

Situational leadership® is a leadership model, which has been largely influenced and molded by its early developers Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey. In this section we’ll examine the early development of the theory in late-60s to 70s, before looking at how the leadership model has evolved from the early inception.

The history of the theory

The human history has seen leaders who have had the ability to adjust to different situations, changing their management style along the way. Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II is often used as an example, together with General George Patton, whose leadership style we’ll discuss in detail in the final section.

In 1969, Blanchard and Hersey published a book Management of Organizational Behaviour, which developed the theory of situational leadership®. When the theory was first introduced, it was actually called the Life Cycle Theory of Leadership. Around mid-1970s, the theory began to be known as situational leadership®. The strength of the theory is evident in the fact that the book is already on its ninth edition.

In the book, Blanchard and Hersey’s central argument regarding leadership was that there isn’t a single factor indicating how you should decide what the correct style of leadership is in any given situation. Instead, leadership is determined by the leader’s personal characteristics, the characteristics of his or her subordinates and the situation where leadership is taking place. This means there essentially isn’t a ‘best’ style to lead independent of the situation at hand.

Both men continued developing the theory further, until late-1970s and early 1980s when they decided to branch out and publish their own take on the developed idea.

Blanchard published One-Minute Manager in 1982, with the book becoming an international bestseller. The book has been translated into 37 languages and Blanchard published an updated version of the book in 2015. In the original book, Blanchard tells a story of a young manager who faces multiple different decisions and meets with a number of different management styles. The book continues with the idea that management must adapt to the situation at hand without overlooking the wellbeing of the people the leader is managing. In essence, the book tells leaders to find a balance between operational goals and personal wellbeing.

Watch the below video of Ken Blanchard explaining his idea of a One-Minute Manager and the requirements of a good manager:

 

Paul Hersey also developed his thoughts around situational leadership® further and published a book The Situational Leader (Hersey, P. (1985): The Situational Leader, New York, NY: Warner Books). Prior to developing situational leadership® with Blanchard, Hersey had also set up The Center for Leadership Studies, which afterwards began providing training in situational leadership® to individuals and companies.

The modern development

As well as Blanchard and Hersey adding to the theory with their respective books and essays on leadership and management, other theorists and thinkers have been adding their own thoughts to the situational leadership® model. Blanchard has collaborated with writers such as Patricia and Drea Zigarmi, Spencer Johnson and Mark Miller, for example.

Perhaps among the most vocal situational leadership® theorists has been Daniel Goleman. In his article Leadership That Gets Results, he points out that leadership isn’t often effective if the same approach is applied in all situations. As we’ll see below, Hersey and Blanchard’s approach identifies four core leadership styles, but Goleman expands these styles further and lists six leadership styles.

According to Goleman, situational leadership® and situational leaders should implement these six specific leadership styles:

  • Coaching leadership – where the focus is on individual’s personal development and job-specific skills.
  • Pacesetting leadership – where leaders need to present high expectations to their subordinates.
  • Democratic leadership – where subordinates are nearly equal to the leader in terms of decision-making.
  • Affiliate leadership – where the subordinate comes first in all situations.
  • Authoritative leadership – where leaders take charge in identification and analysis of problems, but also allow subordinates to participate.
  • Coercive leadership – where leaders simply tell subordinates what to do and how to do it.

One his website’s FAQ section, Goleman states, “Leadership is influencing people to take action” and that “it’s highly situational: anyone might step forward to lead, given the right circumstances”.

Goleman’s theory about situational leadership® is at the core of its rather similar to the original theory developed by Hersey and Blanchard. Where the two situational models start differing is in Goleman’s model emphasizing the underlying importance of emotional intelligence. Goleman believes a good situational leader must have the emotional intelligence to understand what approach fits the situation, instead of just analyzing the readiness level of the subordinate and the task at hand.

 

THE CORE ELEMENTS OF SITUATIONAL LEADERSHIP®

Situational leadership® theory or model comprises a few key elements. These include four styles of leadership, the readiness level of the subordinates and the developmental models.

The four leadership styles

According to Hersey and Blanchard, there are four basic leadership styles associated with the situational leadership® model. The four are: telling, selling, participating and delegating.

Style 1: Telling

As the name suggests, this leadership styles refers to an almost autocratic leadership role in which the leader tells the subordinates what to do. Furthermore, the leader also explains how to do the tasks.

Style 2: Selling

The second style refers to a slightly more democratic model in which there is some discussion between the leader and the subordinates. The leader is aiming to ‘sell’ the idea and message to subordinates and to get them to buy into the process and the tasks.

Style 3: Participating

The third model is largely a democratic leadership approach, as the leader allows more leeway to the subordinates. The amount of direction from the leader remains limited and the subordinates have an active role in making decisions and directing the way the tasks get finished.

Style 4: Delegating

Finally, Hersey and Blanchard identified the final leadership style, which is characteristically a hands-off approach to leadership. The style means the leader is less involved in how decisions are made, allowing subordinates to make them and to take most of the responsibility in getting the job done.

Readiness levels of the subordinates

In addition to the leadership styles, the situational leadership® model also recognizes four different readiness levels of direct reports. These are used for understanding the maturity of the people the leader has to manage.

You can see the four maturity levels displayed in the chart below:

Readiness 1, also known as R1 People who don’t have the right knowledge or skills for the role/job, and often lack willingness to finish the tasks.
Readiness 2, also known as R2 People who are willing to finish the tasks, but who don’t have the knowledge or skills required to do so.
Readiness 3, also known as R3 People who have the right knowledge or skills for the role/job, but who lack the willingness to take responsibility and/or finish the tasks.
Readiness 4, also known as R4 People who are willing to finish the tasks and take responsibility, and who are extremely skilled and knowledgeable.

For a leader to be effective, Blanchard and Hersey suggest identifying the readiness level and then applying the leadership style, which helps in achieving the objectives. As mentioned above, a situational leader must be able to consider both the organizational task at hand, but also the readiness and wellbeing of the subordinates.

In the below model, you can see how the different leadership styles match with the readiness level of the subordinates:

Readiness 1 Telling
Readiness 2 Selling
Readiness 3 Participating
Readiness 4 Delegating

According to the theory, a leader must always base their relationships with the subordinates on three essential points:

  • How much the leader gives guidance and direction.
  • How much socio-emotional support the leader provides.
  • What is the readiness of the subordinates in performing the tasks.

By matching the readiness level with the right style, the relationship can be based on the right approach and yield better results.

Let’s examine each leadership style with the readiness level a bit further. First, the telling/directing approach is a top-down approach. By telling subordinates clearly what to do, the leader can take control of the outcome. Since R1 is linked with low skills and low commitment, the directing approach makes it easier to accomplish tasks and ensure the team knows what to do. This type of leadership, companied with the R1 maturity level, is linked with industries such as military. In the military, a top-down approach is needed often because the lower ranked soldiers won’t have the same experience, skills and knowledge than leaders in the higher ranks.

Second, the selling/coaching approach provides supervision, yet it’s done more as a coaching style rather than a management style. Since the subordinate’s maturity is still lower, but the willingness is there, the leader should help the subordinates to gain experience and confidence. The leadership style is naturally good fit with the education sector and could often work well in internship situations in a variety of industries.

R3 matches with the participating/supporting leadership, as the subordinates have high skill sets, but relatively low commitment and therefore, a boost in confidence and motivation can efficiently get the tasks finished. The leader’s role is not to tell what to do, but to provide feedback on how the subordinate is performing and help only when it’s actually needed. The leadership style is often good for environments where the subordinates have experience, but might lack the confidence to perform tasks, such as junior management positions.

Finally, the delegating leadership style is aimed at subordinates with R4 readiness level. This is because the subordinate has high skills to perform tasks and has high motivation and commitment to support the skills. Therefore, the leader’s role is to oversee things go according to plan and simply ensure the best person is doing the specific roles. The leadership requires plenty of experience from the subordinates and therefore, often fits senior roles.

Here’s a handy diagram to explain the above:

Situational Leadership® Curve

Situational Leadership® Curve

Blanchard’s developmental models

Blanchard developed the above original model further with his Situational Leadership® II, or SLII model. In the revised look of the theory, he suggests there are four developmental models within the situational leadership® model. According to him, employees in organizations pass through a development cycle, as experience or changes in roles increase maturity and skillset of the employee.

As employee’s developmental levels vary, the leader must be able to understand these subtle differences and apply the right kind of management to ensure the employee can perform the tasks to the best of his or her ability and develop further.

The developmental model is similar to the readiness level of the employee, as they both deal with competence and commitment of the employee. The four development levels are:

Enthusiastic Beginner High commitment, low competence
Disillusioned Learner Some competence, but problems cause lower commitment
Capable but Cautious Performer Growing competence, but commitment can vary
Self-Reliant Achiever High competence, high commitment

In addition, Blanchard’s SLII model also recognises the four leadership styles, although they are given slightly different names. His four leadership styles are called: Directing, Coaching, Supporting and Delegating.

In Blanchard’s opinion leadership relies on two key behaviours: supporting and directing. The styles have the following characteristics:

Directing behaviors Providing specific instructions, Controlling the behavior of subordinates
Supporting behaviors Encouraging subordinates, Listening subordinates, Offering recognition and providing feedback

In terms of the four leadership styles:

  • Directing is high on directing behavior, but low on supporting behavior
  • Coaching is high on both directing and supporting behavior
  • Supporting is low on directing behavior, but high on supporting behavior
  • Delegating is low on both directing and supporting behavior

Again, the revised look at these different styles acknowledges there’s no superior style. Instead, the leader must match his or her leadership style to the developmental skill of the subordinate and the task being accomplished.

Learn from Ken Blanchard himself on how to lead like Jesus.

 

THE QUALITIES OF A SITUATIONAL LEADER

Keeping in mind the above, what makes a good situational leader? Situational leadership® requires the leader to possess a variety of traits and skills, as the leader has to be able to adapt to different situations and to respond to the subordinate’s needs.

Hersey’s four common leadership qualities

Hersey’s situational leadership® model identifies four common leadership qualities a leader needs to succeed. These are the ability to diagnose, adaptation, communication and the ability to advance.

Ability to diagnose

A situational leader must possess the skills to diagnose and analyze situations. You need to be able to understand the situation you are trying to influence in order to pick out the best leadership style for the specific situation. In essence, you need the skills for identifying two core aspects:

  • The task at hand and the requirements for completing it
  • The readiness and development level of the subordinates responsible for the completion of the task

In order to improve your ability to diagnose and analyze the situation, you need to continue learning. Self-improvement is the key to situational leadership® success and it involves anything from gaining more understanding of the industry, the organization and of leadership theories and styles in general. If you continue to improve and enhance your own understanding of things, the better you’ll become in diagnosis and analysis.

Adaptation

You also need to showcase adaptability as a situational leader. An effective leader must adjust their behavior depending on the requirements of the situation.

Adaptation can be improved by enhanced knowledge, but you should also focus your energy on broadening your horizon. Instead of directing all the time, ask more questions and listening to your subordinate’s opinions. Asking and listening doesn’t mean you must do as you are told, but accepting different perspectives can improve your ability to adapt to change.

Communication

Since situational leadership® requires leaders to modify their approach, according to the situation and the behavior of the subordinate, the ability to communicate effectively becomes key to success. Communication looks different in the telling and the delegating style and therefore, you need to be able to master both styles.

Improving your communication skills is an important aspect of becoming a better leader. You need to master the basics of maintaining eye contact, listening actively and responding appropriately. But in addition, you need to be able to include empathy, authority and clarity to your communication.

Learn how to become a good communicator.

 

Ability to advance

Finally, a situational leader needs to be able to advance, i.e. manage the movement. Leaders are naturally always in charge of things and the better able they are at holding the different strings together, the better they are at leading. But this ability to manage and advance is especially important in situational leadership®, as you constantly have to readjust your approach and management style according to the task and the readiness of the subordinates.

Picking the right approach

Since there is no single correct approach to leadership, a situational leader must be able to pick out the right style for each occasion. When deciding on the correct approach, the leader must focus on four contextual factors: the relationship between the leader and the subordinates, the task at hand, the leader’s authority, and the readiness level of subordinates.

The relationship between the leader and the subordinates

First, it’s important for the leader to identify the relationship he or she has with the group, i.e. to use the diagnostic skills. The aim is to focus on understanding the group’s skills and commitment.

In essence, the more inefficient the group, the more it would benefit from a relationship that is based on directing. The leader should focus on creating order and to implement clear rules to improve efficiency.

On the other hand, an organized and skilled group could benefit from a supportive relationship. In these situations, the leader should focus on instilling a more democratic approach.

Considering the task at hand

Next, the leader must implement adaptation, as well as diagnosis, to better understand the task at hand. Are you facing a complex or a simple task? You need to be able to identify the elements of the task and their difficulty level in order to understand how well the group is able to achieve the tasks. Knowing the tasks elements also help in determining whether you should implement a more directive or supportive approach to guiding the subordinates.

Identify the authority level

The ability to communicate will help identify the authority level required for guiding the subordinates. As a leader, you must be able to understand your power over the subordinates and more specifically, whether it comes from your position or your relationship within the group.

According to situational leadership®, a leader’s power might be related directly to the position and the power it brings about. For example, the authority might come from the leader’s ability to reward or punish the subordinates.

On the other hand, you might also enjoy a high level of authority because you have a strong personal relationship with the subordinates. For example, your supportive behavior might have led to increased trust and respect among the group.

The readiness level of subordinates

Finally, a good leader must be able to manage and pick out the different readiness levels of the subordinates. This tells you each individual’s ability to achieve the tasks and the commitment they show towards completing these tasks.

With the above in mind, watch the below YouTube video of movie examples of leadership styles and try to piece together which clip features which of the four leadership styles:

 

ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF SITUATIONAL LEADERSHIP®

Situational leadership® comes with its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of situational leadership®

One of the major benefits of the situational leadership® approach is the core message of the theory: there is no single leadership style, but rather a leader must find the right fit for the given situation. This removes the need to follow a rigid strategy at all times and instead, a leader is more able to make sense of the situation around him or her. The model understands that industries and organizations are different and that even within a team, different people can react differently to tasks. In essence, situational leadership’s strength is how it understands the unique nature of the world.

Since the leader is trying to mould the leadership style around the team’s readiness level and needs, the group environment can be comfortable and effective. It can affect the group’s performance, because the leader is using a style that motivates the employee and improves their performance. For example, a low competence-low readiness employee wouldn’t feel comfortable with a delegating style, as they are looking for more advice and encouragement from the leader.

The leader understands the different development phases of the group and can, therefore, pick the styles that boost motivation and improve team’s effectiveness. Since the approach allows changes, the leader is able to switch the approach to something different if, and when, the team develops its readiness level.

Overall, the leadership style is effective in increasing awareness. As mentioned in the previous section, situational leaders must be aware of what is happening around them. By increasing their awareness, they can also develop empathy towards the subordinates, which will help them approach employees in the right manner. Since you need to know what type of readiness and competency the employee has, you need to learn about them and understand where they are coming from. This can make the situational leader better at identifying problems and attuning themselves to the passion and motivation of the employee.

The enhanced awareness is not just beneficial in dealing with the subordinates, but it also improves the leader’s ability to reach organizational goals. Since the leader must be aware of the task in order to pick the right leadership approach, the leader must have an acute awareness of the requirements of reaching desired objectives. The leader must be attuned to the organization’s goals and acutely aware of the steps that must be taken to reach the goals. Matching the right readiness level employee with the specific tasks is an important part of situational leadership® and something that can boost operational efficiency.

Furthermore, the flexible and intuitive approach to leadership can help the team work better together. Since leadership always reflects the team’s maturity, there’s no fear the motivation and encouragement will be ill fitted to maturing subordinates.

Disadvantages of situational leadership®

But situational leadership® has been criticized for some of its failings. The style is critiqued for its lack of understanding of the demographic differences in leadership style preferences. P. Northouse in his 2007 book Leadership, Theory and Practice claims situational leadership® doesn’t identify appropriately how the styles can be used in group settings, when different demographics are present. Men and women have been found in studies to respond to differently to leadership styles and the personal leadership traits within different demographics can drastically change. While the theory understands uniqueness and allows the identification of specific circumstances, it also has a tendency to assume each leader, task or subordinate follow a similar pattern.

But the critique and disadvantages of the theory don’t only relate to the theory side of the approach. Situational leadership® has also been critiqued for the possibility of it creating confusion within the group. If the leader has to change his or her approach within team members or as the team develops, the subordinates can be left questioning the approach. For example, changing from a telling style to a delegating style can make it harder for the employees to know what to do even if their readiness level has increased. Once you get used to a certain style, a sudden change to something different can take some time to adjust. This could cause problems in team morale or the relationship with the leader. The changes in leadership style can be perceived as manipulative and coercive. Therefore, it requires a careful approach from the leader.

Finally, the attention of a situational leader tends to emphasize the short-term strategy, as the focus is always on analyzing the current objectives and readiness levels of the subordinates. Therefore, the leadership style could benefit from overlooking important long-term objectives of the organization and instead rely too much on short-term strategy and politics of the organization.

EXAMPLES OF FAMOUS SITUATIONAL LEADERS

Finally, it’s a good idea to examine situational leadership® through concrete examples. There have been plenty of examples in the past of leaders who have been able to adjust their leadership style according to the situation and the development level of their employees.

Below are four such examples of both leaders and companies.

General George Patton

General George Patton is one of American military’s most revered leaders and a perfect example of a situational leader. General Patton didn’t just lead in the battlefield, but during his time with the military, he also produced several papers on military and war strategy. His core message was that in order to win a war, one must be focused on analyzing the situation. General Patton’s situational analysis became one of the foundations of the US Military’s preparations for action.

General Patton outlined one of the core messages of situational leadership®, which states that leadership and strategy must be flexible. If it’s necessary to change action and leadership style because the situation calls for it, then a good leader will be able to do so.

Some of General Patton’s core principles of leadership included the following:

  • Be flexible with your approach to different situations.
  • Use co-operation and collaboration as tools for leadership.
  • Earn the trust of your team by motivating them with positivity.
  • Set an example with your own actions.

As you can see, the above principles are closely associated with the qualities a situational leader needs to posses in order to succeed.

John Wooden

John Wooden is another example of a great situational leader. Wooden is considered to be one of the best basketball coaches in the history of American college basketball. During his time as the head coach of UCLA’s men’s basketball team, Wooden won ten championships, with seven of them following each other.

Furthermore, the team went on to create a record-breaking 88-game win streak and Wooden managed all of this with a team that was constantly changing. Team members graduated and moved on, with new players coming through the ranks almost every year. This meant the team dynamics were constantly changing and even team member’s readiness level could vary from the more mature and experienced players to the rookies. This required Wooden to adjust and tweak his leadership style accordingly.

One of the most telling quotes about Wooden’s situational approach is his saying, “When you’re through learning, you’re through”. Wooden understood that change is inevitable and constant analysis and development is required for success.

 

Royal New Zealand Navy

Situational leadership® isn’t just suitable for individual leaders, but the model can be applied throughout an organization. Blanchard has worked with organizations, such as the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) in order to improve operational and organizational success.

RNZN suffered from low morale, with new reforms causing issues within the organization. Blanchard’s situational leadership® model was used to analyze the situation and to clarify policies that “would consolidate, clarify, and specify training that, when directed appropriately, would remove conflict and lead to higher productivity and morale.

Personal responsibility was improved and the focus shifted away from simple command structure to leadership. The Navy identified readiness levels and applied more delegation to high competency subordinates to help boost morale. The navy even began training new recruits and officer cadets in the principles of Situational Leadership®. According to Blanchard’s data, RNZN has increased its morale and productivity since the application of situational leadership® approach.

Coca-Cola and Jack Stahl

Finally, Jack Stahl’s approach to leadership, especially as the President of Coca-Cola from 1978 to 2000, can be considered as an example of situational leader. Stahl believes good leaders are “situational”, as they “are able to step into any circumstance and recognize whether they need to engage at the strategy level or dive into the nitty-gritty”.

Stahl learned this situational approach from an early on and through a mistake he made when applying leadership. He was asked by his then CEO Doug Ivester to prepare a report with his team on a tight schedule. Instead of analyzing the team’s readiness levels and competence, he simply delegated large parts of the task only to find out the project was largely undone by the time the deadline knocked on the door. Stahl learned then that effective leaders must know what kind of oversight to apply and when in order to get the tasks done.

In this interview, Stahl makes an important point stating, “management is not a popularity contest”. “As a leader, once you see that people are doing that (focusing on details) successfully, then you pull back and worry about things from a more strategic perspective,” Stahl went on to say.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Situational leadership® has quickly become one of the most revered leadership theories and much of the success relies on the flexibility of the approach. Situational leadership® model understands that organizational needs are different and that people are not homogenous when it comes to competency and commitment. In order to lead, you must understand the correct way to guide and motivate your subordinates.

But the flexible and situation-specific approach has also provided a lot of ambiguity around the theory and model. Since the theory borrows from other leadership approaches, it is hard to analyze its effectiveness and to even understand when a leader is being situational and when they are simple using a specific leadership model, such as autocratic leadership or democratic leadership.

Nonetheless, understanding the model can help a leader improve his or her diagnosis and awareness. By understanding the needs of his or her subordinates, as well as the demands of the task, the leader can show more empathy, efficiency and flexibility, which can help boost team morale and even enhance productivity. The ability to fit one’s approach to a specific situation can be strength in today’s increasingly changing business environment.

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