5-second summary
  • In the situational leadership model, leaders vary their approach based on an individual’s level of competence in a particular area.
  • Depending on the circumstances, a leader may choose to take a more directive or more supportive approach.

These days, it’s not uncommon to hear people obsessively talking about what “type of leader” they are. People are hungry for resources that will solidify their understanding of these archetypes. But obsessing over finding the right management style can be a dead end; not only are certain methods outdated, but there’s no single tool that will work in every situation.

If you want to build an effective, high-performing team that will stay relevant for years to come, situational leadership is the way to do it.

What is situational leadership?

Situational leadership is an adaptive leadership style in which a leader changes their approach based on the individual, the task, and the context they’re managing. Situational leadership theory changes the conversation from “Who am I and how do I lead?” to “Who is the person in front of me, and what do they need from me in order to be successful?” The theory was developed by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey in their book, Management of Organizational Behavior.

Discover the 7 core leadership styles (and take our quiz to find yours)

Blanchard and Hersey call on the situational leader to utilize a framework that relies on flexibility, adaptability, and thoughtful analysis of what people need to develop and succeed. By letting context inform what an appropriate leadership style looks like in each situation as it occurs, leaders are able to take a nuanced approach to their responsibilities

4 examples of how to use situational leadership

Situational leadership is built on the idea that teams or individuals will be at different developmental levels in different areas of their job. Based on that context, leaders can adjust their approach to help individuals develop specific skills based on that person’s unique needs and area of work.

Situational leadership defines four development levels, paired with four behaviors, as a way of understanding a person’s growth and what is required from a leader to help them move forward. None of these behaviors is the “best,” because all of this is about taking a situational approach. Let’s take a look at each one.

1. The enthusiastic beginner

This is where almost everyone starts when they’re learning a new role or skill. Their commitment is high because there hasn’t been any experience to challenge it, and their competence is low, again due to that lack of experience.

People don’t know what they don’t know, so when a teammate is learning something new, the best leadership for them will be highly directive. They don’t so much need to be encouraged that they can do it; rather, they need to be told what to do.

2. The disillusioned learner

Disillusioned learners have probably run up against their shortcomings in the competency they’re trying to gain. This experience of failure or inadequacy, coupled with only marginally increased competence, can be incredibly deflating.

How to use a democratic leadership style without succumbing to ‘majority rules’

As a person is confronted with shortcomings in their proficiency, their natural reaction is to become discouraged. If you perceive a shift in that direction for one of your direct reports, it’s essential to add highly supportive behavior while maintaining a highly directive posture. The critical mistake leaders make in this stage is to think that because the person has been working at a skill that they no longer need direction. However, this is actually the stage where highly directive behavior is most important.

3. The capable-but-cautious performer

At this level, the employee starts to turn a corner. As their competence increases, often people will start to move out of that low-commitment funk.

This is a critical transition, according to situational leadership theory. As someone’s competence makes meaningful progress and their commitment level increases again, it’s important to scale back the level of direction you provide while maintaining a highly supportive environment.

4. The self-reliant achiever

At this point, the developing employee has reached a point of mastery in the skill they were learning. They can perform at a high level and feel confident about the quality of their contributions.

If a self-reliant achiever is a pro at what they’re doing, inundating them with tons of direction or smothering them with check-ins will most likely backfire. It’s a waste of your time, and takes their focus away from the thing they’ve become really great at. Managers of self-reliant achievers should focus on delegating tasks more than supporting their work.

Good leaders take different behavioral approaches to each of these developmental levels, because learners at each level need different kinds of support to succeed. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership, and you should be suspicious of anyone who claims otherwise.

High-functioning teams are supported by leaders who focus on the practical needs of the people they’re leading and offer support specific to the areas where their team is stuck. Smart managers, practicing situational leadership, give their teammates exactly what they need, when they need it.

Is situational leadership the best leadership style?