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Situational Leadership: Useful For Any Situation?

As individuals travel down the path of their leadership journey, one question is held high above the rest: What kind of leader will I be? What's my leadership style? Not everyone leads the same, and while some people have a seemingly innate ability to lead, others may need to work on developing their style over the years. If the former type of person is you, there's no reason to worry! There are plenty of leadership theories, models, and stories out there to help find what works best for you. One such style of leadership is known as situational leadership, where a leader changes their leadership style based on the maturity or readiness of the follower.

There are two assumptions made in the model that was made widely known by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey, being that 1) followers continue to gain competence as they develop in their time working on a task/job, and 2) followers start off with a high level of commitment before dropping down to a low level of commitment, eventually ending up again with a high level of commitment. It can be broken down into four stages, or situations:

S1: Directing- The leader offers low levels of support and high levels of direction to the followers

S2: Coaching- The leader offers high levels of support and high levels of direction to the followers

S3: Supporting- The leader offers high levels of support and low levels of direction to the followers

S4: Delegating- The leader offers low levels of support and low levels of direction to the followers

There are certainly benefits to this style of leadership: it allows leaders to adapt to their followers (instead of the other way around), it is simple in having only four stages, it is easy to utilize, and even easier to understand. However, there are several flaws in this model that makes it difficult to apply to every situation.

First, the second assumption of the model, where leaders lose commitment before gaining it back, does not happen to every follower. While there may be times in a project or task or job where you end up in a lull, that is not only applicable when you're still gaining competence; even the most highly skilled individuals have times they may not want to commit to their work.

Second, imagine this scenario: two volunteers who have both volunteered to work for one year at a soup kitchen. The director (who is savvy with situational leadership) notices that one worker serves twice as much food during a month, even though both have volunteered for the same amount of time. Because of this, he assumes that the first volunteer already has high levels of commitment and competence, and starts to delegate the responsibilities. Meanwhile, the director continues to always be there to support and direct the second volunteer, who grows tired of always being harped about his work after already volunteering for a month. As you can see, several problems arose due to the situational leadership model: the leader has to determine what amount of competence defines the four stages, and then how to measure that competence. In this case, the leader measured competence by the amount of food served, assuming that higher competence would lead to more food served. However, the first volunteer could just be serving more food by being sloppy or not caring about how much is given out; in that case, the second volunteer actually has more competence than the first volunteer! Situational leadership can also lead to feelings of inadequacy and unfair treatment, especially when paired with followers who are working in close proximity to each other. As the second volunteer sees the first volunteer being treated differently, he wouldn't be wrong to question the director's reasoning behind this imbalance. While adaptability is a great trait leadership quality, it is necessary to know how to use that adaptability in a way that encourages fair treatment.

Lastly, situational leadership is, at best, supported by mixed results in research studies. While there have been some studies that have shown it's worth in certain situations, few, if any, studies support the model in its entirety. While adaptability is certainly a strong trait for a leader to possess, one must be careful in how it is utilized.

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