Beyond “Situational Leadership”

A very handy and popular concept in the field of leadership thinking was devised in the late 1980’s by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard.  It was called “Situational Leadership.”  And although other contingency models of leadership have been well-articulated, the simple and clear presentation of their model became de rigeur in many organizations and business schools.  Situational Leadership remains popular as a learning module offered by HR and OD departments in large corporations.

Contingency leadership (of which situational leadership is a variant) put past models of a singular leadership style on their side, while slaying the perennial argument that the heroic leader was a myth, along with the implicit verity that leaders are made, not born.

Situational Leadership emphasizes that leading others effectively is dependent on the context of the situation (in particular, the follower’s context), and that the style (or set of behaviors) that a leader must use in order to get results should be based on the needs of the follower.  What a simple and radical concept!  The best ideas are often simple, eh?

[IF you are familiar with the model, skip this next part to get to the main point of this post…pick up at “RESTART HERE.”]

Hersey & Blanchard devised a 2×2 matrix (four cells) to describe the leadership model.  On the horizontal axis of the matrix is the amount of direction that the follower needs, from low to high.  On the vertical axis is the amount of psychological support the follower needs from low (at the junction) to high.  For simplicity, they divided the axis into a simple “Low” or “High” boundary; this yields four quadrants of leadership behavior sets.

The model tracks a follower’s competence:  first, they move from “High” Direction with “Low” Support where they desire to be “Told or Directed” by the leader. Rank beginners are regularly positioned in this quadrant, because they are more concerned about gaining skills to survive than they are having a solid trusting relationship with their leader.

Then, while followers demonstrate an improved skill set, they still need direction, and some additional confidence, having “High” needs for both Direction and Support.  The leader engages in “Coaching or Selling” for a follower in such a situation.

Next, the follower is competent in the skills required, but still needs support.  The follower controls decisions, but the leader inserts himself or herself whenever he or she feels necessary to Participate and Support the follower.

Finally, when the follower has mastered the skill set, the leader “Delegates” responsibilities to the follower, and is available for advisement and consultation whenever the follower requests.

A generation of leaders have benefited from the simplicity of this model.


For all its merit, the simplicity of the Situational Leadership model gets people stuck in over-simplifying how it is to be used.  Oftentimes this leads people to discount the model, or to reject it entirely—throwing the baby out with the bath-water.

While the model provides utility in the hands of persons who do not get trapped by its simplicity,  the Situational Leadership model does have some shortcomings:

  1. The model is insufficient in its ability to provide useful “assessment” of followers’ actual capability, future capacity, psychological needs and temporal and long-term motivations.
  2. Competence (or “readiness”) cannot be generalized from one unique skill set to another, yet managers wish to do this all the time (see example after this list.)
  3. Intrinsic follower motivation & engagement are assumed in the model, yet are not always evident.  The model does not address this situation.
  4. People develop at different speeds, and some people never achieve the self-starter mode required for delegation.
  5. People may have a widely different self-concept or identity than what the leader conceives of them as, and this complicates the model quite completely.
  6. The model assumes an “earning” mindset on the part of the follower, yet in many organizations an “entitlement” mindset persists, largely nullifying the developmental nature of the model and its implicit linkage between one quadrant’s recommended leadership behaviors and the next.
  7. The “invisible force’ of the organization, including its “noise and distractions” are not accounted for by the model, all of which can have a drastic impact on motivation and expectations for pace, results, cycle-time, organizational manners and customs, etc.
  8. The sub-culture of the follower’s peers, cohort, and work-group is completely absent from the model, yet research indicates that these groups have a profound effect on performance due to their expectations and attitudes on the individual follower.
  9. The model says little about the development of leadership capability itself, which studies show can take years.  Undoubtedly, some quadrants will play to a leader’s strengths; a leader might avoid the others because they are behavioral weakness zones.  Therefore, the model is only as good as the ability of the leader to adapt his/her style to current demands.

The brilliant simplicity of the model should not blind the leader to the complexity of the context of real people and situations.  The model is useful as a starting point for leadership.  But it is insufficient to apply the model cookie-cutter-style in any or all situations.

EXAMPLE: A 35-year-old engineer that has made numerous presentations to clients may in fact wish to have the process delegated to him.  In light of his consistent failure to close the deal, he may be trying to hide his insecurity at not being able to make effective presentations to clients .

Although the situational leadership model actually has the depth to address this situation, most managers familiar with the simplicity of the model—as they know it—might be easily stymied.

Consider another situation.  One individual has great skills at recruiting at job fairs, and is very effective, but doesn’t like to do it because it puts her behind in her programming.  She knows that the organization doesn’t reward her (beyond a pat on the back) for losing a a work-week on the winter college-recruiting junket, and in fact it punishes her because her work piles up while she is gone.  So not only does she not see her family for a week while she is away, she also has to work 12-14 hours the following week to catch up, compounding the problem.  The model’s simplicity has no easy solutions to this scenario.  Yet the answer seems simple outside that box:  Find someone to do her work while she is gone.

In Conclusion

While there are numerous reasons to find the Situational Leadership model inadequate, I have found that it is a truly valid and useful tool to help leaders flex their style to get better results.

Much more information and models, of course, are required to go “Beyond Situational Leadership” so that the leader is equipped to lead in complex scenarios.

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