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What is Situational Leadership?

Situational Leadership has become the model of choice for organisations of all shapes and sizes across the world. It’s a model that facilitates leaders in seeking to generate development opportunities for their employees, establish rapport and bring out the best in people, and ensure that their organisation is prepared for change when circumstances ask for it.

Growth and flexibility lie at the heart of the Situational Leadership model. It asks leaders to rely on the values they wish to instil in those they are leading, and continually work to adapt their leadership style to match the needs of the situation at hand. American writer and management consultant Margaret Wheatley once said, “Leadership is a series of behaviours, rather than a role for heroes”, and the Situational Leadership model is built around this idea.

Let’s take a closer look at the Situational Leadership Model together, and how you can seek to implement the key traits of this model in the way you work.

The history of the Situational Leadership Model

The Situational Leadership Model was first introduced by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard back in 1969. It has grown and evolved since then, but the core strengths of the work remain the same. Rather than setting out corporate leadership as something that can be answered once and finally, it relies on the understanding that there really is no single perfect answer to corporate leadership.

Instead of outlining a single version of what leadership looks like, the Situational Leadership Model seeks to outline core competencies and points of awareness that a highly adaptive leader ought to have. It’s a model focused on creating a common language for performance, designed to produce incisive communications and an effective mode of action in dynamic and fast-changing leadership situations.

The structure of the Situational Leadership model

Hersey and Blanchard’s model of Situational Leadership is geared around setting out two key accounts. The first is of leadership itself, and the second relating to the level and needs of their followers.

On leaders, Hersey and Blanchard outline four different leadership styles:

  1. Telling leaders.

These leaders make decisions and communicate them to others. They create the roles and objectives and expect others to accept them. Communication is usually one way. This style is most effective in a disaster or when repetitive results are required.

  1. Selling leaders 

These leaders may create the roles and objectives for others, but they are also open to suggestions and opinions. They “sell” their ideas to others in order to gain cooperation. 

  1. Participating leaders

These leaders leave decisions to their followers. Although they may participate in the decision-making process, the ultimate choice is left to employees.

  1. Delegating

These leaders are responsible for their teams but provide minimal guidance to workers or help to solve problems. They may be asked from time to time to help with decision-making. 

Note that, while each of these styles differ, Hersey and Blanchard are careful to avoid treating any one style of leadership as ‘the best’. Effective leadership is task-relevant, and the most successful leaders are those who adapt their leadership style to the ability and willingness of the individual or group they are attempting to lead or influence. 

For leaders of high-performance teams, that means not only looking at the person or group you’re seeking to lead, but also the context in which they are being led. The Situational Leadership model therefore asks us to consider that effective leadership varies – not only with the person or group that is being influenced, but it also depends on the task, job, or function that needs to be accomplished. 

Stages of employee development in Situational Leadership

The second half of Hersey and Blanchard’s model of Situational Leadership is an account of the developmental level of those a leader is seeking to influence. Along with leadership qualities, Blanchard and Hersey defined four types of development for followers or employees. Those categories are defined by individual work characteristics of: 

  1. Low Competence: High Commitment
  2. Some Competence: Low Commitment
  3. High Competence: Variable Commitment
  4. High Competence: High Commitment

Perhaps the greatest strength of the Situational Leadership model is the connection drawn between leadership style and those being led. It allows leaders to engage effectively with the needs of those they are leading, using a targeted methodology to facilitate productive and lasting change and employee development. 

It also anchors a leader’s efforts, ensuring that their efforts are truly geared around what needs to be addressed in a real way – not in a manner that is incongruent with the needs of the organisation. The Situational Leadership Model accounts for work environments with multiple sources of influence and encourages leaders to work to the task at hand, rather than relying on their preconceived ideas of what it means to get the job done.

Characteristics of high-performing leaders under the Situational Leadership Model

The Situational Leadership Model asks a lot of a given leader. It requires them to step out and above their work and take a value driven approach. Insofar as there are key attributes for a leader under this model, they can be distilled down to a need for insight and flexibility.

By insight, we’re speaking to the need for a situational leader to develop their understanding of the task at hand and what their followers require. By flexibility, we mean that a leader must be adaptable enough to put those insights to action – moderating their leadership style to match the requirements of the challenge they face. A combination of trust, problem solving and the ability to coach followers through their development will see a given leader equipped to make great strides forward.

Work with Performance by Design

The Situational Leadership Model is uniquely well adapted to permitting for complex changes in the structure and goals of an organisation. Organisations of all shapes and sizes will experience some demand for change over time – and strong leadership is an essential component in any effective effort to manage that change.

It’s a model that the team here at Performance by Design can assist you in adopting in your organisation. Through one-on-one coaching and programs designed to inspire high-performance leadership qualities, we can empower your leaders to focus on results – rather than putting out fires.

Get in touch

From our bases of operations in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto, Canada we work with teams across the globe. Wherever you are, you can look to us for help in fostering the sorts of workplace culture and mode of operation that will see you working at your best.

If you have a question about Performance by Design, please drop us a line. You can get in touch by emailing us at