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Situational Leadership

Situational Leadership
Situational Leadership
Situational Leadership

There are more models of leadership than you can shake a stick at. So how should you know which is the best? That’s the question that is answered by Situational Leadership.

The principle of Situational Leadership is simple. There is no one best approach to leadership. To lead well, you must adapt your approach to the situation.

Situational Leadership has deep roots. And let’s start by setting aside our certainty that people have been managing and leading by adapting their approach to the people in front of them, for centuries. The academic study of this approach goes back to the 1950s.

Why Do We Need Situational Leadership?

What makes a good leader? Is it their traits, behaviours, styles, or the effectiveness with which they carry out their roles and duties? The answer, of course, is yes. It is all of them. And leadership theorists have developed models and theories for each.

This can be bewildering for the young managers and new leaders who are starting out on their career supervising people at work. Situational Leadership models offer ready prescriptions for the style and approach that they can use, based on a simplified assessment of the situation they face.

Situational Leadership models offer confidence and ready effectiveness in leading people at work.

What is Situational Leadership?

Let’s put it simply.

Situational Leadership models offer a selection of leadership styles and a prescription for selecting which one has the highest chance of success, in the situation.

So, a situational leader will diagnose the situation, based on a few simple observations. Then, they will select one of a limited number of styles. If they select wisely and apply the principles sensibly, they will get good results from their team member.

Definition of Situational Leadership

A definitive definition of Situational Leadership is both facilitated and clouded by the existence of trade-marked, copyrighted and heavily defended uses of the generic words situational leadership. Facilitated, because the owner of the label will know clearly what it means. Complicated, because there are two slightly different models (see the section below, on origins). These models are owned by The Center for Leadership Studies, founded by Paul Hersey (Situational Leadership) and the Ken Blanchard Companies, founded by Ken Blanchard (Situational LeadershipII). Here they are in that sequence:

The Situational Leadership® Model provides leaders with an understanding of the relationship between an effective style of leadership and the level of readiness followers exhibit for a specific task.


The Situational Leadership® II model is an easy-to-understand, practical framework that helps your managers diagnose the needs of their people and then provide the appropriate leadership style to meet those needs.

What are the Origins of Situational Leadership?

The formal origins of Situational Leadership lie in the 1950s, with work on Contingency Theory. Research considered the way effective leadership behaviours were contingent on other factors. This led to a number of models of leadership, the most notable of which was developed by Fred Fiedler.

Perhaps the single most influential stop along the route was a paper in the Harvard Business Review. ‘How to Choose a Leadership Pattern’ by Robert Tannenbaum and Warren Schmidt. It originally appeared in 1958. It is one of the most widely reprinted HBR articles and appeared for a second time, in a 1973 edition. Their model is called the Leadership Continuum, and as you’d expect, we have described it fully in an earlier article. The original paper is available online, and is an excellent read. Any serious student of management should read it.

The term Situational Leadership seems to originate with a model developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, in the late 1960s. They adopted the term ‘situational leadership’ in the mid 1970s. However, by the early 1980s, the two collaborators had gone their own ways. They set up their own companies and marketed learning materials based on two somewhat different models:

How to be a Situational Leader

You’ll need to refer to the websites linked above for the detail. But both models follow the same principles. They use different terminologies and have slightly different diagnoses, but here’s the essence. I intend the terminology I’ll use to be generic.

Step 1: Assess the person you want to lead

Both models suggest you look at the person’s:

  1. skills, knowledge and experience, to evaluate their capabilities, and
  2. motivation, morale, and confidence, to assess their enthusiasm.

This places the team member on a spectrum, which each model divides into four states of readiness, or capacity.

Step 2: Apply the appropriate leadership style

Both models associate a leadership style to the four states of readiness. And both build their four leadership styles as a compound of two types of leadership behaviour:

  • Supportive, socially-oriented behaviour
  • Directive, task-oriented behaviour

Broadly, the four leadership styles each model offers consist of either high or low supportive behaviours, combined with either high or low directive behaviours.

What if Your Team Member Doesn’t Fall into one of Four Boxes?

Who does? These models are simplifications, and real-world managers, supervisors, and leaders need to take into account more factors than just the two. This is a compelling reason to familiarise yourself with Tannenbaum and Schmidt’s Leadership Continuum.

There are lots of wrinkles to these models that make them a valuable learning tool for new supervisors, managers and leaders. Most of us who use them extensively in our training, have a firm favourite. And we develop ways to bring out questions and discuss solutions in training.

What is Your Experience of Situational Leadership?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions about Situational Leadership. Please leave them in the comments below, and we will respond to them.


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4 thoughts on “Situational Leadership

  1. Do you have to be certified to conduct SL training courses?

    1. There are different models of Situational Leadership, with different course providers. You’d need to check each one for their conditions and whether you need to be certified to train using their materials. Using their materials without buying them from a reputable source and meeting the correct criteria could place your business at risk.

      However, the underlying ideas of situational leadership are generic and not subject to trademarks and copyright. So my belief is that you can describe these to a training group without fear. That said, there is a reason why trainers (including me) recommend to our clients that they spend money of (not inexpensive) proprietary materials. Quite simply, they are good.

  2. While Mr Clayton provides a brief description of both Models, he leaves out the fact that they are both trademarked and copyrighted for the obvious reasons, If you are trained by a certified Situational Leadership (R) facilitator, you will discover that there is much more to teaching the model than four leadership styles and readiness levels. It takes a deep dive to understand the simplicity of application but the complicated analysis of each follower’s readiness level to perform a specific task. That being said they move along a continuum for each readiness level and the leader flexes the style accordingly. If you would like more information on becoming certified in Situational Leadership (R), please visit our website at

    1. Thank you, Glenna.
      I do carefully attribute the ownership of each model, and have indeed trained as a facilitator in the Blanchard version. The article, however, is intended as an introduction to the ideas and not as a detailed description.

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