Situational leadership theory was created by the authors and management experts Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in the early 1980s. According to their theory, what is effective management will depend on both the task involved and the maturity level of the people that the individual is managing. Hersey and Blanchard define maturity in a variety of ways, such as the ability to take responsibility for a task. They emphasize there is no single best management style.
Blanchard and Hersey distinguish several styles of leadership that are effective depending on the context in which they are used. "Telling" involves one-way communication, in which a leader simply provides commands. "Selling" involves giving commands, but also engaging in conversation justifying decisions. "Participating" involves actual conversation between managers and employees on what course to take. "Delegating" involves allowing certain people other than the manager to actually make their own decisions based on judgments.
Hersey and Blanchard have four basic maturity levels in their model, going from M1 to M4. M1 describes employees without any of the basic skills to do a job and lacking the ability to take responsibility. M2 describes employees with some of the basic abilities but lacking the ability to take full responsibility. M3 describes employees with ability and experience, but lacking the self-confidence for full responsibility. M4 describes employees able to take full responsibility.
Blanchard and Hersey describe a basic motivation cycle with four steps, which an effective leader is able to negotiate and take their employees through. D1 involves workers with low competence and low motivation. D2 involves workers with low competence but high motivation. D3 involves workers with high competence but low motivation. D4 involves workers with high competence and high motivation. Different groups of workers will be at different points in this basic cycle.
Blanchard and Hersey place a great importance on motivation as a part of the management process. The best managers are not those who repeat themselves according to a standard formula, but those who find ways to appeal to the unique psychology of the particular employees they're dealing with. Different employees will have different needs and will require different styles to motivate them. Situational leadership theory is meant to be a more organic approach to management.