The Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory is a method used by organizations to transform managers into intuitive leaders. These aren’t bosses who operate based on the power of their position. Rather, they are leaders who move their teams forward, transcend obstacles, and reach goals.

Situational leadership theory is for organizations who want to:

  • Develop team members and teams
  • Invest in human capital and bring out the best in the organization’s followers
  • Deploy a leadership style across all units within the organization

The following is a short guide to situational leadership theory. You’ll learn what it is, how to use it, and the advantages and disadvantages in applying it to your business.

What Is the Situational Leadership Theory?

Situational leadership theory is a unique approach because it doesn’t believe that the “best” method exists. Rather, it’s concerned with applying the right approach to the right situation. Thus, whatever leadership strategy is the most appropriate one for taking on the tasks that lay ahead is the “best” leadership theory for the job.

This approach to leadership is commonly referred to as situational leadership theory, but you’ll also see it referred to formally as the Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory. It’s named for Dr. Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, two experts in the field of leadership and management.

The situational leadership model is different from other leadership styles because it allows for flexibility interpreting situations and applying a leadership style. Other leadership styles are more rigid and assume that neither the organizational environment nor the competence and commitment of followers. This may force them into using leadership styles that aren’t right for a project.

Ultimately, it stops managers from throwing their team into the deep end of the pool before they’re able to swim. It also prevents leaders from incessant hand-holding when their team doesn’t need it. Overall, it frees up resources on all sides, develops teams, and gets projects done faster.

Applying Situational Leadership in Any Business

Utility is one of situational leadership theory’s strong suits because, by design, it can be implemented across all businesses regardless of the companies structure or operational style. Because it doesn’t espouse a particular style for any situation and instead emphasizes the idea of choosing the most appropriate theory for any situation, it can be used at every level of an organization as well.

Here’s a quick break down of how the model works:

The theory is based on the idea that there are only four primary leadership styles.

  1. S1 Telling
  2. S2 Selling
  3. S3 Participating
  4. S4 Delegating

The telling style involves the leader providing verbal direction to teams regarding what tasks to complete and how to complete them.

Selling style is more conversational because it includes back-and-forth between the leader and team members. The leader pitches and sells an idea to encourage the group members to join the process.

In the participating style, the leader allows team members to have an active role in the ideation and decision making processes.

Delegating is the most hands-off approach to leadership of the four. Members of the team make decisions, and the team members take responsibility for the results in exchange for greater autonomy.

Leaders choose one of these four leadership styles as a part of situational leadership by basing their decision on the scenario they’re trying to manage. However, this decision isn’t made randomly. Instead, the Hersey-Blanchard model incorporates something many leadership models leave behind: group maturity.

When the Hersey and Blanchard talk about group maturity, they’re not talking about whether the members of the group make school yard jokes or are emotionally evolved. Rather, they’re talking about more relevant skills such as level of knowledge and expertise held by the team and its members in relation to their job.

So, the authors highlighted four different stages of maturity:

  • M1: The group doesn’t have the competence, knowledge, or willingness to complete a task on their own.
  • M2: Members of the group want to complete the task. However, their willingness isn’t complemented by ability, so they still can’t complete the task.
  • M3: The team has the competence, knowledge, and willingness to get the job done. But they don’t want to take responsibility for the outcome.
  • M4: The group have what is required to complete a task and are happy to be responsible for the results.

The four different stages of maturity are ranked in order of the amount of maturity they hold with M1 being low maturity, M2 and M2 holding medium maturity, and M4 sitting at high maturity.

Leaders decide what leadership style (S) to choose based on team maturity (M). So, M1 is matched with S1 because the team doesn’t know what they’re doing or how to even begin, so they need the leader to tell them precisely what to do and how to get the job done.

History of the Theory

Situational leadership theory has changed since it first appeared in 1969 in Management of Organizational Behavior. At the time, it was known as the Life Cycle Theory of Leadership. However, the authors re-assessed it over the years and by the mid-1970s, it evolved into the situational leadership theory.

Hersey and Blanchard continued to develop their approach over the following few decades. Though, the core structure of the theory has remained the same. The most recent version of the Situational Leadership Theory arrived when Ken Blanchard presented the Situational Leadership II theory in 1985

Several large organizations have attributed success to the situational approach to leadership. Adobe, British Telecom, Genentech, and the Royal New Zealand Navy have all served as examples of situational leadership and participated in case studies.

Situational Leadership Benefits

The main advantage of situational leadership theory lies in its simplicity: it’s easy to apply because it’s based on a relatively simple assessment of a team’s maturity.

It’s also a good way to speed up the development of a team by helping teams new to a task take on projects they’re not familiar with through direction. It then allows for a management style to scale down as teams become more familiar. So, instead of relying on the team to learn on their own and reach proficiency mostly unchecked, the team gets enough guidance to achieve proficiency faster.

Another significant benefit is that the model is interested in what many other management and leadership styles often neglect. Leadership theories often look straight toward productivity and communication. But they often leave behind competence and maturity, both of which are essential for good leadership.

Leaving these factors behind can be damaging. Knowing the right words to say is helpful, but it’s only effective if those words are backed up by a competent and rational leader who leads based on experience and theoretical knowledge. It is one thing to serve as the team’s cheerleader, but if a manager can’t effectively help the team progress forward, then the leader is failing on several counts.

Ultimately, situational leadership also allows managers to develop staff into committed and engaged team members through recognizing and then addressing the team’s performance dynamics.

The Cons of Situational Leadership Theory

There are only a few disadvantages related to using this theory.

The first difficulty lies in that while all businesses can deploy this scheme, it’s not suitable for all managers. Managers who are working as administrators and who don’t have the power to affect change won’t fare well using this system. The issue lies in their inability to make the decision regarding a leadership style to choose in an agile way. They must seek approval before forging ahead, which slows down decision-making time.

Second, there are situations where the theory might not always apply. There are certain scenarios, such as when a task is complex, or there are severe time restraints involved, where it is best to have a specific leadership theory nailed down to rely on. There isn’t always time to assess a team’s maturity and choose a leadership style based on it, particularly if the leader in question doesn’t have strong enough intuition to engage in it.

Finally, changing leadership and management styles can ultimately direct teams away from a long-term strategy. In some cases, consistency is key.

Conclusion

There are no good or bad leadership theories. Most methods work for someone at some point. In fact, the situational approach to leadership is based on this premise because it disposes of the idea that there is a single “best” leadership model applicable to any situation.

The situational leadership model helps leaders address their team’s maturity and drive them to levels of competence that allow for greater autonomy. Not only does this allow the leader to effectively complete tasks and projects, but it also helps team development in a way that provides the right level of support.

Ultimately, situational leadership is about choosing the right direction for the right people, and it allows bosses to be transformed from managers into leaders and partners.