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What is Situational Leadership?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated: May 17, 2024

Situational Leadership®, once called the Life Cycle Theory, is a business management model created by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard. Blanchard and Hersey's model, which first gained notice in the early 1970s, is based on a contingency leadership style. This means that the management strategies and decisions a business leader makes, as well as his or her personal style of leadership, depends on, or is contingent upon, each unique situation.

Flexibility and maturity form a large part of the Situational Leadership® approach. According to Hersey and Blanchard's situational theory, leaders must be mature enough to take responsibility for their actions and choices. They must also be flexible enough to change leadership styles in order to best communicate with their followers. The driving philosophy behind Blanchard and Hersey's leadership theory is the importance of a good match between leader and follower. Leaders must be able to accurately assess each follower's level of skill, ability and motivation, among other qualities, when managing followers.

The four basic ways of leading followers in the Situational Leadership® method are directing, supporting, coaching and delegating. Hersey and Blanchard see directing as the way a leader communicates a directive, or instruction, to the follower. They note that a leader directing tasks to a follower is basically a one way form of communication. By contrast, supporting leadership behavior allows the follower the control of which tasks to work on, while the leader provides only the main decision-making power.

According to Blanchard and Hersey, coaching differs from supporting in that the leader communicates with the follower to generate ideas. Although the leader holds the power of making the final decisions, the follower is encouraged to give his or her input on projects. The fourth basic communication method of Situational Leadership®, delegating, is similar to directing in that tasks are given to the follower by the leader. However, directing differs from delegating as delegation usually places much more control on the part of the follower. When delegating a task to a follower, the leader allows him or her to take more control over the methods of achieving the desired outcome rather than standing by with constant directives as a means of controlling the direction of the particular project.

Hersey and Blanchard assert that deciding whether to use directing, supporting, coaching or delegating Situational Leadership® strategy for each employee means that the leader has to first analyze the specific situation. After analyzing the needs of a particular situation or project, as well as the readiness level of the employee, the leader then chooses the best leadership style to achieve the company's objectives. Blanchard and Hersey's theory stresses that weak leadership occurs when the leader strategizes on a different level than the follower's knowledge, experience, skills and attitude warrant.

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Discussion Comments
By arod2b42 — On Mar 02, 2011


I think this kind of a model can have its own shortcomings due to the fact that conflicts are sure to arise. It is the job of the leader to find the appropriate amount of delegation, and this will vary depending on the leader. Understanding which situations warrant delegation and which ones should be handled by the leader is important.

By Tufenkian925 — On Mar 01, 2011

Leadership models which allow followers to take initiative and ownership of certain aspects of the business, or even things as small as day to day cleaning responsibilities. Encouraging a work environment of creativity and initiative makes a group happy and thriving.

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