Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Industrial & Organisational : Introduction : Personnel : Organizational psychology : Occupations: Work environment: Index : Outline

Situational leadership theories in organizational studies are a type of leadership theory, leadership style, and leadership model that presumes that different leadership styles are better in different situations, and that leaders must be flexible enough to adapt their style to the situation they are in.

A good situational leader is one who can quickly change leadership styles as the situation changes. Most of us attempt do this in our dealings with people: we try not to get angry with a new employee, and we remind forgetful people. The model doesn't apply only to people in leadership or management positions, all people lead others at work, at play, and at home.

The Blanchard and Hersey Model

As a leadership model, the best known example was developed by Ken Blanchard, the management guru who later became famous for his "One Minute Manager" series, and Paul Hersey. They created a model of situational leadership in the late 1960s that allows one to analyse the needs of the situation, then adopt the most appropriate leadership style. It has proved popular with managers over the years because it is simple to understand, and it works in most environments for most people.

The model rests on two fundamental concepts; leadership style, and development level.

Leadership styles

Blanchard and Hersey characterised leadership style in terms of the amount of direction and support that the leader provides to his or her followers. They categorized all leadership styles into four behavior types, which they named S1 to S4:

  • S1: Directing Leaders define the roles and tasks of the 'follower', and supervise them closely. Decisions are made by the leader and announced, so communication is largely one-way.
  • S2: Coaching Leaders still define roles and tasks, but seeks ideas and suggestions from the follower. Decisions remain the leader's prerogative, but communication is much more two-way.
  • S3: Supporting Leaders pass day-to-day decisions, such as task allocation and processes, to the follower. The leader facilitates and takes part in decisions, but control is with the follower.
  • S4: Delegating Leaders are still involved in decisions and problem-solving, but control is with the follower. The follower decides when and how the leader will be involved.

Of these, no one style is considered optimal or desired for all leaders to possess. Effective leaders need to be flexible, and must adapt themselves according to the situation. However, each leader tends to have a natural style, and in applying Situational Leadership she must know her intrinsic style.

Development levels

The right leadership style will depend on the person being led - the follower. Blanchard and Hersey extended their model to include the Development Level of the follower. They stated that the leader's chosen style should be based on the competence and commitment of her followers. They categorized the possible development of followers into four levels, which they named D1 to D4:

  • D1: Low Competence, High Commitment - They generally lack the specific skills required for the job in hand, However, they are eager to learn and willing to take direction.
  • D2: Some Competence, Low Commitment - They 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.
  • D3: High Competence, Variable Commitment - They are experienced and capable, but may lack the confidence to go it alone, or the motivation to do it well or quickly.
  • D4: High Competence, High Commitment - They are experienced at the job, and comfortable with their own ability to do it well. They may even be more skilled than the leader.

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, many 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.

Leadership/development matching

Blanchard and Hersey said that the leadership style (S1 - S4) of the leader must correspond to the development level (D1 - D4) of the follower. Furthermore it is the leader who must adapt, not the follower. To get the most of situational leadership, a leader should be trained in how to operate effectively in various leadership styles, and how to determine the development level of others.

For an example of a mismatch, imagine the following scenario. A new person joins your team and you're asked to help him through the first few days. You sit him in front of a PC, show him a pile of invoices that need to be processed today and then excuse yourself to a meeting. He is at level D1, and you've adopted S4, an obvious mismatch. Everyone loses because the new person feels helpless and demotivated and you don't get the invoices processed.

For another example of a mismatch, imagine you're handing over your duties to an experienced colleague before you leave for a holiday. You've listed all the tasks that need to be done and given him a detailed set of instructions on how to carry out each one. He is at level D4, and you've adopted S1. The work will probably get done, but your colleague will despise you for treating him like an idiot.

But 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, and most importantly, the follower's development level will rise, to everyone's benefit.


Since then, Ken Blanchard and others have done further work and put forth what they called "Situational Leadership II".

See also


This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).