What Is the Situational Leadership Theory?

Updated on May 29, 2020

The situational theory "focuses on the characteristics of followers as the important elements of the situation, and consequently, of determining effective leader behavior" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 71). This theory has been applied broadly in training and improvement for leadership in businesses all over the nation. It stresses that different situations demand different kinds of leadership. Adaptation is the key to success in this viewpoint, requiring an individual to adjust to the stipulations of dissimilar circumstances. "Situational leadership stresses that leadership is composed of both a directive and a supportive dimension and each has to be applied appropriately in a given situation" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 55).

It is important to note that "most social scientists interested in leadership have now abandoned the debate between person or situation in favor of a search for a set of concepts that are capable of dealing both with differences in situations and with differences in leaders" (Vroom & Jago, 2007, Pg. 20).


What Are the Different Leadership Styles?

Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard created the situational theory as an extension of the leadership grid. In the leadership grid, leaders are rated on a scale based on two decisive factors, including: "the concern for people and concern for production." A grid is formed with the scores generated from these two measures.

Included in the grid are different styles of leadership, comprising of:

  • Team management: when members work together to carry out responsibilities (most effective style according to the leadership grid)
  • Country club management: The chief concern is for the workers rather than the outputs.
  • Authority-compliance management: occurs when efficiency in operations is the dominant orientation (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 49)
  • Middle-of-the-road management: moderate amount of emphasis for both people and production
  • Impoverished management: Leaders exert little effort toward interpersonal relationships or work accomplishment" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 49).

How Do Leaders Adapt to Each Situation?

In adapting to each situation, the leader must analyze whether employees are capable and adequately dedicated to executing a specific assignment. "Based on the assumption that employees' skills and motivation vary over time, situational leadership suggests that leaders should change the degree to which they are directive or supportive to meet the changing needs of subordinates" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 56).

Hersey and Blanchard's theory proposes that employees vary in readiness level. "People low in task readiness, because of little ability or training, or insecurity, need a different leadership style than those who are high in readiness and have good ability, skills, confidence, and willingness to work" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 71). The SLII model, developed by Blanchard and Blancard, is an illustration of the situational approach to leadership. "The model is an extension and refinement of the original situational leadership model developed by Hersey and Blanchard" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 56).

What Is Directive and Supportive Behavior?

Leadership style is the behavior pattern of a person who wants to persuade others.

  • Supportive behavior: Concern for people, or having a relationship focus. "Supportive behaviors help group members feel comfortable about themselves, their co-workers, and the situation" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 57). Two-way communication is utilized by interactions that demonstrate social and emotional dealings with others. "Examples of supportive behaviors would be asking for input, problem-solving, praising, sharing information about one's self, and listening" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 57).
  • Directive behavior: Concern for a task or having a production focus. "Directive behaviors assist group members in goal accomplishment through giving directions, establishing goals and methods of evaluation, setting timelines, defining roles, and showing how the goals are to be achieved" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 57). One-way communication is utilized by an interaction that clarifies the what, how, and who for each job.

What Are the Four Categories of Directive and Supportive Behaviors?

"Leadership styles can be classified further into four distinct categories of directive and supportive behaviors" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 57). These categories include:

  • Directing: A high-directive-low supportive style in which goal achievement is the focus of this approach with minimum supportive behaviors. A leader in this role will provide specific instructions and then supervise an employee's performance vigilantly.
  • Coaching: A high directive-high supportive style. "In this approach, the leader focuses communication on both goal achievement and maintenance of subordinates' socioemotional needs" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 57).
  • Supportive: A high-supportive-low directive style. "In this approach, the leader does not focus exclusively on goals but uses supportive behaviors that bring out the employee's skills around the task to be accomplished" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 57).
  • Delegating: A low supportive-low directive style. "In this approach, the leader offers less task input and social support, facilitating employees' confidence and motivation in reference to the task" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 58).

What Is Follower Readiness?

The second part of the situational leadership model is concerned with the development level of subordinates or otherwise called follower readiness. "Development level refers to the degree to which subordinates have the competence and commitment necessary to accomplish a given task or activity (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 58).

At a high development level, employees experience enjoyment and are secure in their work. On the other hand, when employees are at a low development level, they do not have the skills to complete the task but have the desire to learn. The development level of the situational leadership model is used in order to label employees into four categories, moderate to high competence with a lack of commitment, and finally high competence and high commitment. The level of development for each employee will determine which leadership style the leader will implement.

For example, the directing style works best with employees who demonstrate very low levels of development, the supporting and coaching styles are effective with employees of moderate-to-high development, and the delegating style is effective for employees with very high development. "The leader's style can be tailored to the individual subordinates similar to the leader-member exchange theory" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 74).

Leader–Member Exchange (LMX) Theory

Leader—Member Exchange (LMX) Theory
Leader—Member Exchange (LMX) Theory | Source

What Is the Leader-Member Exchange Theory?

The leader-member exchange (LMX) theory is an "individualized leadership model that explores how leader-member relationships develop over time and how the quality of exchange relationships impacts outcomes" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 54). Studies on this theory explored the following: "communication frequency, value agreement, characteristics of followers, job satisfaction, performance, job climate, and commitment" (Daft, Richardson, 2008, Pg. 54).

Leaders are typically able to identify with those of "similar backgrounds, interests, and values who demonstrate a high level of competence and interest in the job" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 54). The leader-member exchange relationship has been proven higher with in-group members. This theory "proposes that this higher-quality relationship will lead to higher performance and greater job satisfaction for in-group members and research, in general, supports this idea" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 54).

The results of a high-quality relationship will have positive outcomes for the organization including increased effort and initiative of in-group participants. Three stages are identified that members go through in their working relationship:

  • Strangers: In this stage, "the definition of each group member's role defines what the member and leader expect to do" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 54).
  • Acquaintances: In this stage, roles are shaped and refined.
  • Mature relationship: In this stage, a steady pattern of behavior is reached.

How Does the Situational Approach Work?

"The situational approach is constructed around the idea that employees move forward and backward along the development continuum—a continuum that represents the relative competence and commitment of subordinates" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 59).

Diagnosis is essential by evaluating where employees are on the development continuum, in order to adapt leadership styles. The first step is to diagnose the nature of the situation, based on the development levels for employees, described above. "Having identified the correct development level, the second task for the leader is to adapt his or her style to the prescribed leadership style represented in the SLII model" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 59).

If subordinates are at the first level, the leader should adopt a coaching style. "Because subordinates move back and forth along the development continuum, the leader should change his or her leadership style. "Unlike the trait or contingency approaches, which argue a fixed style for leaders, the situational approach demands that leaders demonstrate a strong degree of flexibility" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 60).

Situational Leadership by Ken Blanchard: One Minute Manager


Daft, Richard, L. (2008). The Leadership Experience (4th Ed). Thomson Higher Education: Mason, OH.

Killian, Shaun. (2007). Situational Theory Model by Blanchard & Blanchard. Australian Leadership Development Center. Retrieved on January 24, 2010 from http://www.leadershipdevelopment.edu.au/Content_Common/pg-effective-theory.seo

Northouse, P.E. (2007). Leadership: Theory and Practice (5th Ed). Sage: Thousand Oaks, CA.

Vroom, V.H., & Jago, A.G. (2007). The role of situation in leadership. American Psychologist, 62(1), 17-24.

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.

© 2014 Melinda Longoria, MSM


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    • profile image


      12 months ago

      interesting article and wish to read more.

    • Mohamad Qutait profile image

      Mohamad Qutait 

      2 years ago from Malaysia

      That's great article

    • Melinda Longoria profile imageAUTHOR

      Melinda Longoria, MSM 

      6 years ago from Garland, Texas

      Hey Eiddwen, thank you so much for taking the time as always to stop by. :-) I always enjoy reading your comments. I hope you have a wonderful week. Sincerely, Mel

    • Eiddwen profile image


      6 years ago from Wales

      Different to my usual reading material but so very interesting. Looking forward to many more.



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