Definition of Situational Leadership

by Anne Kinsey ; Updated November 05, 2018
Meeting at warehouse

When it comes to leadership, most people tend to veer more toward one style of leadership or another. While one leader is naturally gifted in encouragement, another is gifted in direct and clear communication. One leader naturally inspires while another leader tells. Though we all have our natural gifts when it comes to leadership, different employees and situations require different approaches to success. This is where situational leadership comes in, with the idea that different leadership styles are appropriate for different contexts. As a leader, be aware of what your team members need, what your strengths areas are and how to grow to meet their needs. When just the right leadership style meets the people at just the right time, your business will gain unstoppable momentum to help you meet and exceed your goals.

What Is Situational Leadership?

Situational leadership is an approach to leadership which suggests that different leadership approaches are needed in different contexts and at different times. Developed by Hersey and Blanchard in 1969, this theory argues that multiple leadership styles working in concert are more effective than any one leadership style alone. This is a flexible model of leadership that makes room for changing approaches to match employee development level. It allows a leader to switch between directive and supportive behavior, as well as merge the two to empower individuals and teams to perform and grow personally and in business.

What Is a Situational Model?

A situational model of leadership matches the appropriate leadership style with the stage of employee development in an individual or group. Developmental stage and leadership style can change over time by altering job responsibilities, new company initiatives, personal challenges and other dynamics.

There are four main styles of leadership in Hersey and Blanchard's situational leadership model. All four are seen as positive and appropriate when used at the right time and in the right circumstances:

  • Telling (S1): A leader who uses the telling approach directs employees or team members by telling them what to do through simple instruction instead of through two-way communication. During natural disasters or times of crisis, a telling approach can feel like a relief to people who may not have much energy or desire to collaborate and engage in conversation. The telling approach helps to get things done in tough situations. 
  • Selling (S2): When a leader utilizes the selling approach, they still give clear instructions, however, communication also goes two ways. In this style, the leader is open to suggestions and ideas from their team members. Instead of simply stating their vision and telling others what to do, the leader presents their ideas to the team to sell the ideas and persuade team members to get on board with the plan.
  • Participating (S3): Leaders who use a participating approach seek to inspire their employees and team members to come up with ideas and plans on their own. While the leader closely supervises the process, the team as a whole is responsible for the creation and execution of the plan for moving forward. 
  • Delegating (S4): When a leader uses a delegating approach to supervising a team, she tends to be pretty hands-off. These leaders expect other team members to come up with plans, problem-solve and carry out ideas with very little supervision. Employees may occasionally consult the leader for help solving problems beyond their scope, but they exercise this option as a last resort.

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These four leadership styles are matched with the appropriate employee development level to achieve a winning leadership model that keeps the organization moving in a positive direction:

  • Low Competence, Low Commitment (M1): M1 teams or team members lack the information, knowledge and skills to complete the required tasks. They also lack commitment or confidence for completing the required jobs. This is often because of crisis, natural disaster or tasks that are repetitive or new. These individuals and groups require a telling (S1) approach to leadership. This leadership style gives them the information and direction they need to grow in both competence and confidence. 
  • Some Competence; High Commitment (M2): Some people like to say that practice makes confidence and the M2 stage of employee development is evidence that this is sometimes true. These group members or teams have begun to absorb necessary information and gain the skills needed for success, which has created a feeling of confidence. This confidence creates momentum that makes them feel committed to the task at hand. Because they are beginning to learn, people at this developmental level are ready to collaborate and be part of the decision making process. The selling leadership style (S2) offers them the direction they still need while allowing them to become part of a collaborative process. 
  • High Competence; Low Commitment or Confidence (M3): People in the M3 developmental stage have extensive knowledge and skills but are disillusioned, unwilling to complete the work or irresponsible. These individuals tend to respond very well to the participating leadership style (S3), which engages them in the process of creating solutions that they want to be part of. If they have become disillusioned with past leadership, this approach gives them a chance to build trust with new leadership, while demonstrating their skills. Highly skilled employees who are unwilling or irresponsible respond well to having high accountability and oversight while still having the freedom to make plans and decisions on their own. 
  • High Competence; High Commitment or Confidence (M4): Employees who have a high level of skills and knowledge, as well as a high level of confidence and commitment do not need a hands-on leader to give them direction and supervise every decision. These team members benefit most from a delegating leadership style (S4) that offers them the opportunity to be creative and take responsibility for initiatives with very little supervision or oversight. The leader knows that these teams and employees can be trusted to perform well and that they will check-in for help when they get stuck. 

Should You Use Situational Leadership?

Leadership can sometimes feel like shooting in the dark, especially if you choose to use whatever style happens to come most naturally to you. Getting intentional results without a deliberate plan is hard. Situational leadership gives you a way to practice intentional leadership so that you can get intentional results that create momentum for success.

The situational leadership model empowers you to match the right leadership style with the developmental stage of your employees and teams. Instead of guessing what might work best, you get to lead with a proven formula for success. Any parent who has children with different personality styles, strengths and growth areas knows that while one child needs to be told what to do directly, another child needs a hug and a pat on the back to do what is required. Adults are no different, and they make up our business teams and employee bases.

If you are patting an employee on the back who needs a clear direction, it is likely that this employee will struggle with motivation. On the other hand, if you offer swift directives to an employee who already feels overwhelmed and discouraged, this employee may shut down and cease working completely. In both cases, these employees are likely to slow down or halt momentum toward your organization's goals and vision. When you use a situational leadership approach, you give the employee who needs clear direction some directives, while encouraging the discouraged employee to keep the organizational momentum going strong to get you where you are going.

What Are Other Leadership Styles?

Most other approaches to leadership suggest that one overall leadership style must be used across an organization. Certain leadership approaches may be frowned upon entirely, even though they could be useful in certain circumstances. The situational leadership approach makes room for all of these approaches in different circumstances:

  • Pacesetting: The pacesetting leadership style is when a leader sets high expectations and standards for the team and employees are expected to perform up to this level. Employees who do not meet these high expectations are replaced by higher performers or by the leader themselves. While the pacesetting leadership style could be discouraging for some employees, it can fit into a telling leadership approach (S1) within the situational leadership model and be helpful to those who are in crisis or natural disaster situations (M1). 
  • Democratic: The democratic approach to leadership is focused on open communication, dialogue and finding out what team members think about the plan and process they are engaged in. This approach is flexible and works with team members who have some knowledge, competence and confidence for the work in front of them (M2). Employees who are excited about the work in front of them and know what they are doing are an incredible asset to any team. The democratic approach fits nicely within either the selling (S2) or participating (S3) styles in situational leadership. 
  • Coaching: The coaching approach to leadership focuses on personal and business development and could summarize the entire situational leadership process, which seeks to move employees and groups from one developmental level to the next. Encouragement and coaching continue until employees reach a high level of knowledge, commitment and confidence (M4) and can work on their own. Coaches are highly competent themselves and focus on coming alongside their employees as peers to mentor them through their development. Coaches know when to tell, sell, include or delegate. When an employee reaches a high level of development, a coach continues to intentionally celebrate their achievements to help them stay in that healthy place. 
  • Affiliative: When leaders use an affiliative approach, they use positive reinforcement and praise to help employees gain momentum and achieve goals. This is a strengths-based model of leadership that works well with employees who are competent but need help gaining confidence (M3). It is similar in some ways to the participating approach (S3), though the participating approach also makes room for constructive criticism, as needed. 
  • Coercive: The coercive approach to leadership comes with the assumption that employees must always do what they are told to do when they are told to do it. While this leadership style is often criticized and is not appropriate for every situation, it has a lot in common with the telling leadership style (S1) and is effective in crises and natural disasters (M1), when having clear direction is more of a comfort than a burden for team members. 
  • Authoritative: The authoritative approach to leadership is similar to the selling style (S2) because it seeks to get team members on board with the vision. Clear directives are given to employees, but their feedback is seen as important. This approach is useful for employees who are beginning to grow in skills but who are still hungry for knowledge and direction (M2). 

About the Author

Anne Kinsey is an entrepreneur and business pioneer, who has ranked in the top 1% of the direct sales industry, growing a large team and earning the title of Senior Team Manager during her time with Jamberry. She is the nonprofit founder and executive director of Love Powered Life, as well as a Certified Trauma Recovery Coach and freelance writer who has written for publications like Working Mother, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Houston Chronicle and Our Everyday Life. Anne works from her home office in rural North Carolina, where she resides with her husband and three children.

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