Situational Leadership Theory

Developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, Situational leadership theory is one of the most significant tools in the organizational management. Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard developed the model while working on Management of Organizational Behavior. The theory of Situational leadership was rechristened in the mid-1970s. Earlier, it was introduced as “The Life Cycle Theory of Leadership.”

Situational Leadership

When it comes to the Behavioral Science, the situational leadership model is plausibly the most utilized, recognized and, effective leadership tool.

The model has no specific leadership style which can be considered the “best” one to go with. The most unique thing about situational leadership is that it has a wide spectrum of leaders including teachers, salespersons, managers, guardians, parents, and so on. This leadership style also depends upon the nature of task, function, and operation to be accomplished.

Hersey and Blanchard classified leadership styles into four types from S1 to S4:

  • S1 (Directing) Low Competence and High commitment.
  • S2 Coaching) Some Competence and Some Commitment.
  • S3 (Supporting) High Competence and Variable Commitment.
  • S4 (Delegating) High Competence and High Commitment.

The Situational Leadership Model

Situational Leadership Model

S1 (Directing)

 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.

S2 (Coaching)

This is a two-way communication process that provides a socio-emotional support, while the leader is still furnishing the team with directions that influence an individual or the group to come on the 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.

S3 (Supporting)

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 team to take action and to think autonomously; slowly releasing the leash and fabricating scope for self-leadership.

S4 (Delegating)

 The leader believes that the 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 only involves to monitor progress.

Maturity Levels

Situational Leadership Maturity

The appropriate leadership style depends on an individual or the team that is being led. The Hersey-Blanchard situational leadership theory identified four maturity levels from M1 to M4:

M1 – They are neophytes but very enthusiastic. They lack certain skills that are required for the job and are willing to work at the task.

M2 – They have better skills but are demotivated for the task or job and show lesser interest in their work.

M3 – They are experienced and skillful but lack the will and confidence to take up responsibilities.

M4 – They are experienced, confident, and comfortable with their skills and do well. They are skillful and willingly take up responsibilities for the task.

Maturity levels are task specific. An individual or a team might be skilled, motivated and confident but yet possess maturity level at M1 when asked to perform tasks necessitating skills they don’t possess.

Development Levels

Situational Leadership Development Levels

Situational leadership II model employs phrases like commitment and competence to explain the various levels of development. In order to create an effective cycle, a leader is required to motivate his followers.

D1: Low competence and high commitment

D2: Low competence and low commitment

D3: High competence and variable/low commitment

D4: High competence and high commitment

Situational leadership II model explains the evolutionary process of a new recruit who has no skill/experience of the task. As he or she learns the basics of the task with the support of his or her leader, he advances to the next level where the competition is less compared to the previous stage but the task may be more complex. As the employees equip themselves with more skills, they progress to the next level and finally went on to that level where the competition and commitment both are high.

Benefits of Situational Leadership Theory

  • The leadership style is flexible
  • The task can be changed according to the situation
  • Encourages the individual/team to become independent performers
  • Enhances integrity and humility between the leader and the subordinates

Disadvantages of Situational Leadership Theory

  • Situational leadership may not seem intuitive to heavy regimented and task-oriented managers.
  • A situation of confusion and uncertainty, as the employees often remained confused about the daily tasks, which are assigned by their leader
  • It is possible that this approach creates too much emphasis on immediate requirements, shifting attention away from long-term objectives and goals.
  • In this style, it proves to be difficult to define and quantify maturity.
  • Hersey-Blanchard situational leadership model identifies maturity on both emotional and job maturity levels, which at times results in conflicts between the two.


Situational leadership theory is becoming very popular in the modern organization, especially in the military set up. Leaders ability is the key requirement for the success of situational leadership.

However, there’s no one optimal leadership style for all the leaders at all times. Efficient leaders are flexible and adapt themselves according to the situation. Blanchard defines development as a process of an individual moving from developing to developed. In this point of view, it is imperative upon the leader to keep a check on the development levels and then employ appropriate leadership style.

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