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Three Contingency and Situational Theories of Leadership

Jason has a background in business, travel, and athletics. He is happy to share his knowledge with others and loves to continually learn.

Learn about three leadership theories: Fiedler's Contingency Model, House's Path-Goal Theory, and Hersey and Blanchard's Situational Model.

Learn about three leadership theories: Fiedler's Contingency Model, House's Path-Goal Theory, and Hersey and Blanchard's Situational Model.

A Different Approach to Leadership

Unlike other leadership theories such as trait theories or behavioral theories, contingency theories focus not on leader abilities or styles but on the various situations in which leaders may find themselves. The main idea behind contingency theories is that different situations will demand different styles of leadership. In other words, the best leadership style is contingent on the situation.

Three popularly studied contingency theories are:

  • Fiedler’s Contingency Model
  • House’s Path-Goal Theory
  • Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Model

Each of these models takes a different approach to determine how different leadership styles will relate to different situations.

The Least Preferred Coworker Assessment. Leaders can use this test to determine their leadership style according to Fiedler. Click on the image for a larger view.

The Least Preferred Coworker Assessment. Leaders can use this test to determine their leadership style according to Fiedler. Click on the image for a larger view.

Fiedler’s Contingency Model

This approach to situational leadership starts by understanding a leader’s behavior. A test known as LPC (Least Preferred Co-worker) is used to evaluate leadership style. Leaders who take the test (respondents) have the opportunity to describe a person who they would not want to work with (their least preferred co-worker). A version of the LPC test can be seen on the right.

Leaders who take this test should circle the number choice that best defines the person who is most difficult to be around in a work environment. If that person is pleasant sometimes, then the respondent should choose number 5 in the first row. If the person is always unfriendly, the respondent should choose number 1 in the second row.

Interpreting LPC Scores

After completing the assessment, the respondent must add up all of their choices. The sum (or total) from all of the numbers chosen represents the respondent's LPC score.

  • A score of 57 or below is considered a low LPC score, and the leader's style is task-oriented.
  • A score between 58 and 63 is considered a middle LPC. This means the leader could have task-oriented or relationship-oriented tendencies.
  • A score over 64 is considered a high LPC score, and the leader's style is relationship-oriented.
Visual display of Fiedler’s Contingency Model

Visual display of Fiedler’s Contingency Model

How Does Fiedler's Theory Work?

The idea here is that the two different leadership styles: task-oriented and relationship-oriented, can both be effective--but in different situations.

Fiedler identifies three different types of variables that can impact a situation. The variables are not all equal in importance. They include:

  • The relationship between the leader and the followers (most important)
  • Task structure - how defined are the group's tasks? (moderately important)
  • Position power - how much formal authority is the leader given? (least important)

The visual below shows how these three variables can interact to form eight different possible situations (also known as octants) and which leadership styles are best for each situation.

Unlike other contingency theories, Fiedler's approach believes that leaders, by and large, have a set leadership style. In other words, if a leader is task-oriented, he or she will always be task-oriented and cannot quickly change styles to adapt to a changing situation.

Path-Goal summary diagram

Path-Goal summary diagram

Robert House's Path-Goal Theory

The path-goal theory is a little easier to comprehend than Fiedler's model. House's theory is based on the idea that a follower's motivations are based on three assumptions:

  • If effort is given, the goal can be achieved (expectancy)
  • If the goal is achieved, there will be a reward (instrumentality)
  • The reward is considered valuable (valance)1

Leaders must be able to provide their followers assurance of their expectations. Differences in the characteristics of followers, the type of situation, and the leader's style will all play in a role in the effectiveness of the group in achieving its goals.

Four Styles of Leadership

The Path-Goal Theory identifies four styles of leadership:

  • Directive - This leader provides direct and authoritative communication to his/her followers. This is ideal for followers who may have less knowledge or experience.
  • Achievement-Oriented - This leader sets high expectations for followers. He/she will challenge their subordinates and show confidence in their ability to achieve good results.
  • Participative - This leader works with his/her followers, considering their ideas and listening to them.
  • Supportive - This leader comes alongside his/her followers, showing care and concern for their needs and well-being.

Each of these styles can be effective or ineffective depending on the situation and the abilities and needs of followers. According to House, leaders do have the ability to change styles, and leaders should attempt to change to best serve their followers.

Further Reading

For more information on the Path-Goal theory, check out these articles on Wikipedia and E-How:

The Situational Leadership Model

This last model places followers into four different groups based on their maturity and assigns a particular leadership style to each group. The two different variables for determining followers' maturity are:

  • Task skills
  • Motivation

Task skills represent the work ability and knowledge of followers. Do they have advanced work skills; are they mature in the workplace? Or do they have limited knowledge in regards to their work?

Motivation, on the other hand, measures the desire of followers to accomplish a task and looks at their psychological maturity.

Together, the various levels of followers' task skills and motivation form four levels of readiness (also known as levels of maturity). See the table below for the breakdown of readiness levels and the corresponding leadership responses.

Readiness Levels and Effective Leadership Styles

Readiness Level (of followers)Leadership Style

R1 - Readiness Level 1: Low Motivation and Low Task Skills

S1 - Telling

R2 - Readiness Level 2: High Motivation and Low Task Skils

S2 - Selling

R3 - Readiness Level 3: Low Motivation and High Task Skills

S3 - Participating

R4 - Readiness Level 4: High Motivation and High Task Skills

S4 - Delegating

A grid visual of readiness levels

A grid visual of readiness levels

Leadership Style Descriptions

Telling (S1)

Leaders give commands and specific instructions to followers.

Selling (S2)

Leaders provide direction and guidance, but there is more interaction between leaders and followers.

Participating (S3)

Leaders complete tasks by working with followers as a team and place high value on relationships.

Delegating (S4)

Leaders have confidence in the abilities of their followers. They empower followers by delegating tasks and giving them more responsibility.


1Crawford, C.B, Brungardt, C.L., & Maughan, M. (2005). Understanding Leadership: Theories and Concepts (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, Inc. Page 62.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


Roseline Fildor on December 13, 2016:

Thank you so much for this opportunity, for getting the right idea that I was looking for.