Learn About Situational Leadership Theory

Learn About Situational Leadership Theory

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Syed Aquib Ur
Syed Aquib Ur Rahman
Assistant Manager
Updated on Feb 20, 2024 17:16 IST

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership. The Situational Leadership Theory explains this flexibility based on the complex needs of team members and leaders.


Are you a manager, team lead, or CEO who wants to become a more effective leader? If so, you need to learn about situational leadership theory.

The model was developed in the 1960s by Paul Hersey and Kenneth H Blanchard. They describe that leaders can match their leadership style to the maturity level of their followers. This means they can adapt it to specific situations at the workplace.

Broadly, the framework covers two circumstances to explain that no single management or leadership style can always work.

One area covers four leadership styles: telling, selling, participating, and delegating. Secondly, there are four follower maturity levels: low, medium, medium to high, and high.

What is Situational Leadership Theory?

Situational leadership theory describes that leaders should adjust leadership styles instead of sticking to a specific one. It covers leader-follower guidance and relationship, along with follower-task competency. 

Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard developed this methodology in their book, Management of Organizational Behavior (1969), but named it the life cycle theory of leadership.

Meaning Situational Leadership

The authors define the concept of Situational Leadership in great detail. 

According to the authors in the revised edition of the book in 1988, 

Situational leadership is based on the interplay among (1) the amount of guidance and direction (task behaviour) a leader gives, (2) the amount of socioemotional support (relationship behaviour) a leader provides, and (3) the readiness level that followers exhibit in performing a specific task, function or objective.”

How the Situational Leadership Theory Developed

Both Hersey and Blanchard studied leadership styles to deduce leader-follower relationships into two categories based on communication, tasks, and workplace. 

One is task behaviour. Here, the leader described the tasks the followers must perform. This includes the what, how, when, where, and who of the tasks. If you are aware of the levels of management, the communication is mostly one-way instead of a dialogue. 

Second, is the relationship behaviour. This is the kind of workplace behaviour where there is two-way communication. There is encouragement and support in this aspect.

The authors then derived that these two behaviours are distinct from each other. Two axes can be drawn to understand the relationship between these two and the type of leadership. Four leadership style types are formed based on the axes and can be divided into quadrants.

Task and Relationship Quadrants in Situational Leadership

Leadership Styles in Situational Leadership Model

Telling (S1)

The telling style is characterised by high task direction and low relationship behaviour. 

The leader takes a directive approach. They provide specific instructions and closely supervise the followers’ actions. 

This style is most appropriate when followers have low maturity levels, meaning they lack the knowledge, skills, and willingness to complete the task on their own. The leader needs to provide clear guidance and direction to help the followers understand what needs to be done.

Selling (S2)

The selling style combines high task direction and high relationship behaviour. Here, the leader gives directions and engages in two-way communication. That’s how they are able to persuade and “sell” their ideas to their followers. 

The goal is to gain buy-in and commitment from the followers. This style is useful when followers have moderate maturity levels, showing willingness but still lacking some of the necessary skills. The leader’s support and explanation of the task’s importance can motivate the followers to work more effectively.

Participating (S3)

The participating style emphasises low task direction and high relationship behaviour. 

Here, the leader involves the followers in decision-making and problem-solving processes. That encourages them to take a more active role. This approach is suitable when followers have a moderate to high level of maturity, possessing the necessary skills and competence to complete the task. 

But, they might be hesitant or unwilling to take full responsibility. In such cases, the leader’s support and involvement in decision-making can boost the followers’ confidence and commitment.

Delegating (S4)

The delegating style is described as low task direction and low relationship behaviour. In this style, the leader offers minimal guidance, allowing the followers to take ownership and make decisions independently. 

This approach works best when followers have a high level of maturity, displaying both the skills and the willingness to complete the task on their own. The leader’s role is more hands-off, trusting the followers to carry out the task effectively.

Maturity Levels of Followers in Situational Leadership Theory

The maturity levels mentioned above are of four types. These levels indicate how the situational leader should lead. 

Low Maturity

At this level, group members have low competence and low commitment. They lack the knowledge and skills necessary to perform a task and may also feel unmotivated or unwilling to take responsibility. 

Medium Maturity

Group members at this level have moderate competence but still lack full commitment. They possess some knowledge and skills related to the task but might have experienced setbacks or lack the confidence to work independently.

Medium to High Maturity

Group members at this level have high competence but varying levels of commitment. They possess the necessary knowledge and skills to complete the task effectively. 

But, they might be hesitant or unwilling to take full responsibility. The leader involves them in decision-making and encourages them to take an active role in problem-solving.

High Maturity

Group members at this level have both high competence and high commitment. They are skilled, knowledgeable, and motivated to complete the task independently. Followers here are self-reliant and capable of taking full responsibility for their actions.

Exploring this methodology will provide a good context to grow your leadership skills. The authors and related scholars have also refined this approach over the decades. And these modifications today are a crucial part of leadership training

Related Read: Leadership Theories


How does Situational Leadership Theory handle cultural diversity within teams?

Situational Leadership Theory acknowledges the importance of cultural diversity within teams and emphasizes the need for leaders to adapt their styles accordingly. Leaders should be sensitive to cultural differences in communication preferences, decision-making processes, and motivation factors when determining the most effective leadership approach.

Can Situational Leadership Theory be applied to remote or virtual teams?

Yes, Situational Leadership Theory can be applied to remote or virtual teams. Leaders must recognize the unique challenges of leading remote teams, such as limited face-to-face interaction and potential communication barriers. They may need to adjust their leadership styles to provide clear direction, maintain strong relationships, and foster a sense of trust and accountability among team members.

How does Situational Leadership Theory address conflicts within teams?

Situational Leadership Theory suggests that leaders should assess the maturity levels of team members involved in conflicts and adjust their leadership styles accordingly. Depending on the situation, leaders may need to provide more guidance and direction to resolve conflicts among less mature team members or facilitate collaborative problem-solving processes for more mature team members.

What role does feedback play in Situational Leadership Theory?

Feedback plays a crucial role in Situational Leadership Theory as it helps leaders gauge the effectiveness of their leadership styles and adjust them as needed. Leaders should provide timely and constructive feedback to team members to support their development and ensure alignment with organizational goals. Additionally, leaders can solicit feedback from team members to gain insights into their needs and preferences.

How does Situational Leadership Theory account for changes in team dynamics over time?

Situational Leadership Theory recognizes that team dynamics can evolve over time due to various factors such as changes in personnel, projects, or organizational goals. As a result, leaders may need to regularly reassess the maturity levels of team members and adapt their leadership styles accordingly. Flexibility and ongoing communication are essential for effectively navigating changes in team dynamics and maintaining high performance.

About the Author
Syed Aquib Ur Rahman
Assistant Manager

Aquib is a seasoned wordsmith, having penned countless blogs for Indian and international brands. These days, he's all about digital marketing and core management subjects - not to mention his unwavering commitment ... Read Full Bio