Situational Leadership Theory: What Does It Tell Us?

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 26th March 2015

Since its introduction by Hersey and Blanchard more than 40 years ago, situational leadership theory has been one of the most widely adopted and discussed concepts within leadership and management.

In truth, this isn’t surprising, as much of it falls within the “well yeah, obviously” field, containing much that is self-evident, and observed to be true over decades.

What is situational leadership theory?

Situational Leadership Theory: What Does It Tell Us?

Situational leadership proposes that there is no single most effective leadership approach. Instead, it depends on a number of factors, from team members to tasks. The theory is based on two concepts: leadership styles, and maturity levels.

Leadership styles

S1 – Telling: Authoritative, with the belief that you know best

S2 – Selling: Maintaining control over decisions, while generating consensus and enthusiasm

S3 – Consulting: Using input from the team to reach decisions

S4 – Democratic: Empowering the team to make decisions alone

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Maturity levels

The four maturity levels refer to the group being led, and help decide the right leadership approach to take.

M1: Lacking the skills required for the job, and unwilling to take responsibility

M2: The skills required for the job are present, but the ability to take responsibility is not

M3: Experienced at performing the task, but lacking the confidence to take on responsibility

M4: Experienced at performing the task, and willing and able to take responsibility

What does it tell us?

So, does situational leadership actually tell us anything we didn’t already know?

Well, no, not much. What it does do, though, is give us some very useful ways of thinking about and applying theories we thought we already knew, but weren’t sure what to do with.

The S1 to S4 leadership styles and M1 to M4 maturity levels described by Hersey and Blanchard relate closely to the work of some of their contemporaries, such as Tannenbaum and Schmidt, or even the much earlier work of Lewin and Lippitt, but the way Hersey and Blanchard describe them makes it much easier to see how and when the different styles might be deployed to make a difference in practice.

It is this fact that has probably contributed to the longevity and widespread adoption of situational leadership as a ‘real’ management concept. It doesn’t just sound like some academic bunkum dreamed up by someone in a university who has never been an actual manager (as so much leadership and management theory is). Instead, it comes across as practical and based on reality, and is all the better for that.

My recommendation would be to read some of the practical comments about situational leadership from Hersey and Blanchard themselves. Then look at Tannenbaum and Schmidt’s leadership continuum, and link it to Blake and Mouton’s managerial grid. Integrate those three, and you’ll have a very good grasp of the way leadership and management style might affect team culture, behaviour and performance.

Of course, learning how to put leadership theory into practice effectively takes a little more than reading a few articles! If you want to explore this in more depth, our leadership mentoring and qualification programmes spend a lot of time helping leaders to choose and use their style for optimum impact. To find out about enhancing your knowledge, or learning more about yourself as a leader, get in touch below.

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