The Situational Theory of Leadership

What is Situational Leadership Theory? Definitions & Examples

The Situational Theory of Leadership

Situational leadership is about adapting the style of leadership to employees involved, with an eye to the environment within which they operate. It is therefore more about a leader’s ability to adjust to the situation in front of her, than about personal leadership skills.

Situational leadership, in short, takes people in context seriously. The leader applies the leadership style that is best suited to the situation. The leader is agile.

Situational leadership is related to contingency theory therein they both view success as a result of matching leadership abilities and style with the situation. Yet, where contingency theory focuses on matching leadership style with the situation as such, situational leadership theory places a specific focus on matching leadership style with follower requirements.

This implies also that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’. You may say that situational leadership is flexible as it adapts to the needs of the followers in context.

During times of transition, situational leadership is key in keeping an organization afloat – swiftly implementing organizational change to match new markets and so forth – can be the difference between prosperity and bankruptcy.

The literature offers us mainly two theories of Situational Leadership

  1. Situational Leadership according to Blanchard and Hersey
  2. Situational Leadership according to Daniel Goleman

Let’s start out by looking at Blanchard and Hersey’s model.

The Situational Leadership Model by Blanchard & Hersey

Blanchard and Hersey connect four different styles of leadership with four different stages of employees’ development – here called Maturity Levels.

The situational leader will make an optimal match between leadership style and maturity level.

The four leadership styles, introduced by Blanchard & Hersey, are:

1. Telling (matching Maturity Level 1, see below). Use a telling leadership style when the team needs close supervision and guidance. Make decisions, create roles, objectives, and convey these to employees, who you expect to act accordingly. Works best during a crisis or when in need of repetitive results.

2. Selling (matching level 2). Use a selling leadership style when the commitment among employees is low. Explain and sell ideas and strategies to engage and motivate all involved. Communication is not entirely one-way as with the Telling leadership style; the leader is open to hearing ideas of the employees.

3. Participating (matching level 3). Use a participating leadership style when the team has a high level of competency and mainly needs a leader to facilitate the process. You may share your expertise, yet employees will ly make the final decisions.

4. Delegating (matching level 4). Use a delegating leadership style when you have confidence that the team has both the skill and motivation to problem solve on their own. You may stand by for questions, while your involvement is minimal.

No leadership style is to be viewed as better than the other. It is about matching leadership style with employees’ Maturity Levels – to ensure success.

To the question: Which leadership style is best? The answer is: that depends!

Let’s look at the four Maturity Levels

Maturity Levels  

Maturity Levels are also called Readiness levels or Stages of Employee Development:

Level M1: Low Competence: High Commitment

Level M2: Variable Competence: Low Commitment

Level M3: High Competence: Variable Commitment

Level M4: High Competence: High Commitment

To maximize success, the leader is to lead according to the style that matches employees’ Maturity Level best. Leadership style 1 (Telling) is suggested to best match Maturity Level 1. Leadership style 2 matching Maturity Level, 2, and so forth. Note that these will vary across team members and again: no one-size-fits-all!

By LumenLearning

Let’s move on to have a look at Daniel Goleman’s situational leadership theory.


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The Situational Leadership Theory by Daniel Goleman

Daniel Goleman – the author of Emotional Intelligence – incorporates the concept of emotional intelligence into the theory of situational leadership.

Goleman creates six categories of situational leadership styles, where he, for each leadership style, makes a suggestion for when it is best applied.

Let’s look at the six categories.

Goleman’s Six Leadership Styles

1. The coercive style – ‘Do what I say’ approach

  • Effective in acute situations and for quick and effective turnarounds of situations. It is however inflexible and may reduce employee motivation. The coercive style proves to be the least effective in most situations.

2. The authoritative (visionary) style –  ‘Come with me’ approach

  • The goal is called out, yet employees are largely free to pursue it the way they see as best fit. May work well for an organization that needs firm steering to get back-on-track, yet works less well with experts holding expertise beyond the level of the leader.

3. The affiliative style – People come first’ attitude

  • Highly useful for building team harmony and increasing morale. However, an exclusive emphasis on praise may leave errors uncorrected and employees in need of direction and advice.

4. The democratic style – ”What do you think?’ approach

  • Workers are included in decision making and thereby the leader builds organizational flexibility and responsibility. While the democratic leader takes into account employees’ ideas and input, it may well result in too many meetings where employees to a large extent feel being without a leader.

5. The pacesetting style – ‘Do as I do now’ approach

  • Workers who a high pace will pacesetting leaders, who set high-performance standards exemplified by their own practice. Others may be overwhelmed by the pace and ambition and so dis this tendency to take control of situations.

6. The coaching style – ‘Try this’ attitude

  • Personal development more than task completion is central to the coaching leader. It works well to collaborate with an employee about surpassing a recognized weakness. It reaches, however, a stalemate when the employee’s readiness for change is low.

Goleman emphasizes that the ability to master the individual leadership styles – and perhaps more importantly, the ability to shift among styles as conditions dictate – is the way to create a healthy organizational climate and optimize business performance (2000).

Drivers of Climate Change

Six factors influence an organizations’ working environment. Here they are in Goleman’s own words (2000):

  1. Flexibility – how free employees feel to innovate -unencumbered by red tape
  2. The sense of Responsibility – to the organization
  3. The level of standards that people set
  4. The sense of accuracy about performance feedback and aptness of awards
  5. The clarity people have about mission and values
  6. The level of commitment to a common purpose.

Research shows that leaders’ emotional intelligence does affect leadership style and the style affects in turn the respective employees’ feelings regarding organizational climate to various degrees (Maamari & Majdalani 2017: 1).

Organizational drivers can be viewed as management techniques that facilitate an understanding of the way workers view their working environment (Maamari & Majdalani 2017: 5).

Example 1: Situational Leadership During Times of Quick Change

Let’s imagine a production company facing potential lock-down within the week – due to COVID-19.

In this situation, where a deadline has to be met within a week, a telling or coercive leadership style is appropriate. The reason is that there is no time to discuss a palette of possibilities for change. A democratic leadership style in this instance would be in dire risk of not meeting the one-week deadline.

Once the lock-down is a reality and all employees are working from home, then a selling leadership style is appropriate for those employees, who feel somewhat demotivated by the lock-down.

On the other hand, those who are eager to keep a high pace and moreover have the competencies to do their work, need no telling or selling.

Then a participating or delegating style fits better the maturity level of employees.

It’s important to embrace how a changing situation within days and sometimes even hours, may call for different leadership styles.

Example 2: Planning a Music Festival

In the initial phases, you want to hear and collect employees’ great ideas by using a participating and delegating leadership style. This is also what Goleman refers to as a democratic approach where all people are heard and involved in the decision making process.

As the day of the event comes closer, there is perhaps a need for speeding up processes and this dictates a pacesetting leadership style. The last days up to the event there is little room for new ideas as it will take to long to implement them.

Instead, all involved must focus on getting things done as planned. Now it’s time perhaps to implement a vibrant and visionary authoritative (telling) leadership style that will ensure that all things are in place when the festival is set to begin.

Again – it all depends on the people and the situation you are working with. The message from Goleman is to expand your repertory to include all six leadership styles. To do that you must understand the underlying emotional intelligence competencies of the leadership styles you lack (Goleman 2000: 14).

If you are interested in learning in more detail about Daniel Goleman’s concepts of Emotional Intelligence, please go to the following article where the four pillars of Emotional Intelligence are explained:

Project Leadership: Moving from Project Management to Project Leadership (3/3)


Goleman, Daniel (2000). Leadership that Gets Results. In Harvard Business Review, March 2000.

Maamari, Bassem, and Joelle F. Majdalani (2017). Emotional intelligence, leadership style & organizational climate. International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 25(2).


Situational Leadership Model

The Situational Theory of Leadership

The Hersey and Blanchard Situational Theory model suggests that a leader must adapt his leadership style task and relationship behaviors appropriate to the situation. Leadership style is dependent on the maturity level and abilities of followers. Under this model, successful leadership is both task-relevant and relationship-relevant.

This theory was 3-D management style theory and has been refined several times since the time of its inception and focuses on leadership styles situations. Situational leadership is a style in which the leader or the manager must adjust his style to match the development level of the followers he is leading.

The situational leadership model views leaders as varying their emphasis on task & relationship behaviors to best deal with different levels of follower maturity.

Hence from this perspective, an effective leader has the capability to adapt his style to the demands of different situations, directing and supporting as the need may be.

Situational Leadership Behaviors:

According to Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard’s theory on situational leadership, there are four leadership styles (S1 to S4) that match the development levels (D1 to D4) of the followers.

The four styles suggest that leaders should put greater or less focus on the task in question and/or the relationship between the leader and the follower, depending on the development level of the follower.

This behavior pattern can be further classified as

Directive (task) Behaviors: Task behavior reflects how much a leader is concerned with the actual task at hand and ensuring that those following him complete it.

Directive behaviors help followers accomplish goals by getting clear directions, establishing their goals and objectives, evaluation criteria, time lines, roles, responsibilities and specific sub-tasks to achieve the goals.

Other activities associated with directive behavior are guiding and structuring followers’ activities, planning, scheduling, and assigning responsibilities, defining roles and communication patterns for followers, motivating and conveying expertise, monitoring and following up on assignments, clarifying expectations, goals, and work methods.

Directive behaviors is most of the times is one-way communication that specifies what is to be done and the task can be accomplished and assigning the responsibility for doing it. From the follower’s perspective this kind of behavior provides role clarity, clear expectations, satisfaction with work and supervisor, satisfaction with organization, lower stress and increased performance.

Supportive (relationship) Behaviors: Relationship behavior reflects how much a leader is concerned for the people around him, providing support and encouragement for them. Supportive behaviors help followers feel comfortable about themselves, their coworkers, and the situation.

Examples of supportive behaviors include asking for input, solving problems, praising, sharing information about oneself, listening, being considerate and understanding, helping followers to develop abilities and careers, showing trust and respect, being sympathetic to other’s problems, being friendly, informative, and encouraging and overall showing concern for followers needs. Supportive behaviors generally involve two-way communication and intended to show social and emotional support to the followers. Supportive leadership behavior satisfy people’s needs to be d and appreciated by others, to be respected as capable and valuable, and to be continually improving. This behavior also helps keep a group together by promoting cohesion among members and keeping individuals from becoming alienated.

Situational Leadership Styles:

Among the most successful leadership models is a group characterized as situational models as they recognize that there is not one best way to lead and effective leaders adapt their behaviors to each unique situation. Thus, a leader will be very directive in one set of circumstances, yet delegate an entire project in another. According to Hersey and Blanchard, there are four main leadership styles given below:

Telling (S1) – Telling/Directing Style:

This style (S1) is a high directive–low supportive style and generally referred to as directing style or telling style. This style is autocratic style focused on high task/low relationship. Leader defines the roles of followers and tells them what, when, where, and how to do different tasks. One way communication flows from the leader to the followers.

Leaders tell their people exactly what to do, and how to do it. In this approach, the leader focuses his interactions with followers on goal achievement, and spends a smaller amount of time using supportive behaviors. Using this style, a leader gives instructions about what and how goals are to be achieved by the subordinates and then supervises them personally.

This style is used at length within the law enforcement and military communities as well as on manufacturing assembly lines, providing a means of managing a diverse group of people that span a wide range of experience and maturity levels.

This style is generally appropriate for professionals who are in early stage of their career and need to learn organizational behaviors.

Selling (S2) – Selling/Coaching Style:

This style is generally referred to as selling or coaching approach and is a high directive–high supportive style. The leader behavior is high task/high relationship. Leaders provide information and direction, but there's more communication with followers. Leaders try to «sell» their message to the followers to make them understand what is important for the organization.

Leaders still provide information and direction, but there's more communication with followers. Leaders «sell» their message to get the team on board. In this approach, the leader focuses communication on both achieving goals and meeting subordinates’ socio-emotional needs.

The coaching style requires that the leader involve with subordinates by giving encouragement and soliciting subordinate input. A perfect example of this type of leadership is often found in an internship situation, with the success of this approach dependent upon whether the student or apprentice learner is excited and self-motivated to be on the job.

However, coaching is an extension of S1 and still requires the leader to make the final decision on the process and how of goal accomplishment.

Participating (S3) – Participating Style:

Style S3 is referred to as supporting or participating style that requires that the leader take a high supportive–low directive style. This style is high relationship/low task focus. Leader focuses more on the relationship and people and less on direction.

The follower is empowered to make many of the decisions since he has the knowledge to do so. There is high level of trust and communication between the leader and the follower. Leaders focus more on the relationship and less on direction.

The leader works with the team, and shares decision-making responsibilities. The supportive style includes listening, praising, asking for input, and giving feedback. A leader using this style gives subordinates control of day-to-day decisions but remains available to facilitate problem solving.

In this approach, the leader does not focus exclusively on goals but uses supportive behaviors that develop employees’ skills around the task to be accomplished. Leader appreciates the work done and is quick to give recognition and social support to followers.

This style is often used by corporate leaders who are attempting to influence a board of directors toward developing a new policy for which there is no proven history or established practice.

Delegating (S4) – Delegating Style:

Style S4 is called the low supportive–low directive style, or referred to as delegating approach. It is considered as low relationship/low-task leader behavior. Leader passes most of the responsibility onto the followers. The leaders still monitor progress, but they're less involved in decisions.

The style involves letting followers “run their own show”. Leaders pass most of the responsibility onto the follower or group. The leaders still monitor progress, but they're less involved in decisions.

In this approach, the leader offers less task input and social support, facilitating employees’ confidence and motivation in reference to the task. The delegative leader is involved very less in planning, detailing and clarification and leaves it for the group to agree on what and how to accomplish.

In this style subordinates need to take responsibility for getting the job done the way they seem fit as leader has already given the control to subordinates to decide. The leader generally refrains from intervening with unnecessary social support.

This style is seen commonly in the freedom given to tenured professors who are allowed to lead in the manner they believe is most effective while being monitored by a dean or department head.

Maturity Levels / Development Levels:

The second part of the situational leadership model defines the developmental or maturity levels of subordinates.

It is the degree to which subordinates have the competence and commitment necessary to accomplish a given task or activity.

According to Hersey and Blanchard, maturity levels can be broken down into four different levels and they are the task at hand and should not be used to classify followers:

Employees are at a high development/maturity level if they are interested and confident in their work and know how to do the given task. Employees are at a low development level if they have little skill for the task at hand but believe that they have the motivation or confidence to learn and get the job done. 

Development Levels

Maturity Levels


Leadership Style



Low in competence, high in commitment, lack knowledge, skill and confidence, need to be pushed and supervised, new to a task, excited about the challenge of it.




Some competence, Low commitment, Started to learn a job, lost some of their initial motivation, willing to work, cannot independently take responsibility for the work.




Moderate to high competence, lacks commitment, Developed the skills for job, uncertain as to whether they can accomplish the task by themselves, experienced, ability to perform tasks independently but lack confidence.




Highest in development, high degree of competence, high degree of commitment, skills to do the job, motivation to get it done, high abilities and confidence, willingness to take individual responsibility of the tasks.


Steps in Situational Leadership Approach:

According to this theory instead of using just one style, successful leaders should change their leadership styles the maturity of the people they're leading and the details of the task.

the situational leadership theory, an effective leader will follow the following steps to decide upon the appropriate leadership style for a given situation:

1. The first step is to evaluate the employees and assess their competency levels and commitment levels to perform the given task. This can be observed over a period of time.

2. Identify employee’s current motivation and skills level to handle the organizational tasks or responsibilities assigned to him.

3.  the assessment understand the need of the employee for either directive leadership or supportive leadership or a mix of both. Leaders need to identify whether they should place more or less emphasis on the task, and more or less emphasis on the relationships depending on the demands of the task/responsibilities of the job at hand.

4. Flex your leadership style to meet the changing needs of employees/followers to accomplish the task successfully.

Situational Leadership is a registered trademark of the Center for Leadership Studies.


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