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LEADING OTHERS: Situational Leadership

Previously known as “the life cycle theory of leadership”, the situational leadership model was a concept introduced by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in Management of Organizational Behavior ( They argued that there isn’t just one leadership style that works for all conditions. The situational leadership theory includes four leadership styles (direct, coach, support, delegate) that are adaptive to the employee’s range of developmental behavior.

The Situational Leadership Theory essentially defines effective leader behavior as dependent on a leader’s ability to understand that different situations demand different kinds of leadership.

Situational leadership is an adaptive leadership style. This strategy encourages leaders to take stock of their team members, weigh the many variables in their workplace and choose the leadership style that best fits their goals and circumstances.

Situational Leadership according to Ken Blanchard & Paul Hersey

Situational leadership is flexible. It adapts to the existing work environment and the needs of the organization. Situational leadership is not based on a specific skill of the leader; instead, he or she modifies the style of management to suit the requirements of the organization.

One of the keys to situational leadership is adaptability. Leaders must be able to move from one leadership style to another to meet the changing needs of an organization and its employees. These leaders must have the insight to understand when to change their management style and what leadership strategy fits each new paradigm.

Their theory is based on two concepts: leadership itself, and the developmental level of the follower. Blanchard and Hersey developed a matrix consisting of four styles:

  1. Directing = S1 This style is featured by one-way communication. Generally, at this level the team or the individuals do not have enough skill/knowledge, hence, they require detailed directions. The leader defines the role of subordinates by providing them how, what, where, when, and why to accomplish a task. This style is basically a top-down approach where the employees just follow the directions of their leader.

  2. Coaching = S2 This is a two-way communication process that provides a socio-emotional support, while the leader is still furnishing the individual or team with directions that influence them to come on track. Even though the leadership style is moderately autocratic, it still requires some directions from the leader; nevertheless, some inputs from the employees are considered before implementing the decision.

  3. Supporting = S3 At this level of development there exists participative decision making regarding the accomplishment of tasks, while the leader exhibits low task behavior and maintains a high relationship behavior. This style mostly reflects on democratic behavior passing more responsibility onto the employees. The leader authorizes the individual or the team to create their goals while he works along with them. The main focus here is to further develop the individual or team to take action and to think autonomously; slowly releasing the leash and fabricating scope for self-leadership.

  4. Delegating = S4 The leader believes that the individual or team is now competent. This is a hands-off approach with the teams exhibiting high development levels. In this phase, the involvement of the leader with his employees is very minimal and the goal creation and decision-making responsibilities are delegated to the group or the individual. The leader is generally kept abreast through regular updates and is mainly involved to monitor progress.

Clearly the right leadership style will depend very much on the person being led - the team member, and the leader's style should be driven by the Competence and Commitment of the team member. More about this and the four ‘Development’ levels below.

The Blanchard & Hersey Situational Leadership Model:

Stages of employee development in situational leadership

Along with leadership qualities, Blanchard and Hersey defined four types of development levels for employees:

1. D1 = Low Competence; High Commitment

Generally lacking the specific skills required for the job in hand + lacks any confidence and / or motivation to tackle it

2. D2 = Low-Some Competence: Low Commitment

May have some relevant skills, but won't be able to do the job without help. The task or the situation may be new to them

3. D3 = Moderate-High Competence: Variable Commitment

Experienced and capable, but may lack the confidence to go it alone, or the motivation to do it well / quickly

4. D4 = High Competence: High Commitment

Experienced at the job, and comfortable with their own ability to do it well. May even be more skilled than the leader

The Blanchard & Hersey “Development Model”:

Development Levels are also situational. I might be generally skilled, confident and motivated in my job, but would still drop into Level D1 when faced, say, with a task requiring skills I don't possess. For example, lots of managers are D4 when dealing with the day-to-day running of their department, but move to D1 or D2 when dealing with a sensitive employee issue.

In the world of Blanchard and Hersey, the Leadership Style (S1 - S4) of the leader must correspond to the Development level (D1 - D4) of the follower - and it's the leader who adapts.

For example, a new person joins your team and you're asked to help them through the first few days. You sit them in front of a PC, show them a list of orders that need to be processed today, and push off to a meeting. They're at level D1, and you've adopted S4. Everyone loses because the new person feels helpless and demotivated, and you don't get the orders completed.

On the other hand, you're handing over to an experienced colleague before you leave for a holiday. You've listed all the tasks that need to be done, and a set of instructions on how to carry out each one. They're at level D4, and you've adopted S1.

The work will probably get done, but not the way you expected, and your colleague resents you for treating him like an idiot. But swap the situations and things get better. Leave detailed instructions and a checklist for the new person, and they'll thank you for it. Give your colleague a quick chat and a few notes before you go on holiday, and everything will be fine.

By adopting the right style to suit the follower's development level, work gets done, relationships are built up, and most importantly, the follower's development level will rise to D4, to everyone's benefit. Here are some examples of appropriate leadership styles:

Click here to read our article on: "LEADING OTHERS: Motivating others."

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Source and inspiration: University of Colorado and Harvard University.


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