Situational Leadership Theory

What Is Situational Leadership Theory?

If you haven’t noticed it yet, most leadership theories build on the previous one. In the same manner, situational leadership theory builds upon contingency theory. Where contingency theory asserts that certain leaders work best in certain environments because of their leadership style, situational leadership theory argues that any leader can work best in any environment by changing their style accordingly.

Situational leadership defines four leadership styles: S1 (high-directive but low-supportive), S2 (high-directive and high-supportive), S3 (low-directive but high supportive), and S4 (low-directive and low-supportive). Developed by Hersey & Blanchard, the theory’s model (called Situational Leadership II or SLII) promotes a particular leadership style depending upon the development level of the follower: D1 (low-competence but high-commitment), D2 (moderate-competence but low-commitment), D3 (moderate-competence but no commitment), and D4 (high-competence and high-commitment). Effective leadership is a matter of assessing the development level of a follower and acting in the correlating leadership style to elicit the best response from followers (D1s respond to S1, D2s respond to S1, and so on).

In the time since its inception, situational leadership II has become a standard model for use in training managers and leaders. The situational approach is effective and provides a prescription for leadership success rather than merely describing why certain leaders work in certain situations. In this way, situational leadership theory further eroded the notion of, “one best way” of leadership. Despite a broad base of support from trainers and consultants, situational leadership theory lacks a significant body of research-based support. While situational leadership considers the followers in determining leadership style, it does so on a one-on-one basis and does not provide guidelines on how to use the model when leading group.


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About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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