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Chameleon Leaders: An in-depth dive into the ‘Situational Leadership’ model

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Overview

Leadership theory has been studied for many years. There are many different theories that define leadership from different perspectives, all expressing their definition(s)? of different types of leaders and what a successful leader should look like.  One of the renowned theories that have captured much attention in the leadership literature is Situational Leadership that was developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard.

Developed in the late 1960s by its founders Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard,  the concept was first introduced in their article ‘Life Cycle of Leadership’; with the core idea that Situational Leadership does not focus on a specific skill or style of leadership, but, instead, it focuses on the relationship between the leader and the follower. Yet, it was not until the publication of the ‘Management of Organizational Behavior’ book that Hersey and Blanchard started referring to their theory as the ‘Situational Leadership’ theory (Blanchard et al., 1993). In this context, leadership is perceived to be more of a tool than a trait as the Situational Leadership model’s main argument is that leaders can be made and not just born (Mwai, 2011).

What is Situational Leadership?

A situational leader is a leader who is adaptable and able to adjust or change their style according to the situation, or more specifically the development level of those they are trying to influence. A successful leader, in this regard, is expected to use different skills in their toolbox to best benefit their team members; as they match their management style according to the situation and the followers needs (Hersey et al., 2001). In other words, the leader’s style changes according to the knowledge and skill proficiency of the team member. Given the situation, a leader would put emphasis on either the task itself or the people. This means that, according to this theory, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to leadership; hence, a leader’s style is not static but malleable.

Situational leadership requires the leader to identify and define the needs of the individual and/or team in order to use the best leadership style to respond to the situation.  In order for a situational leader to be able to successfully influence others, they must be able to determine the amount of guidance and direction (task behavior), and the amount of socioemotional support (relationship behavior) that an individual needs in order to successfully complete a task (What is Situational Leadership, 2014). This is one of the few leadership theories where its implementation is dependent on the followers’ performance readiness, which is the development level at which a team member is able to complete a task (Mwai, 2011).

This theory mainly focuses on task completion; which is usually when a leader will have to look for the approach needed to help an individual or team complete a certain task. The approach that a leader chooses is usually a combination of task and relationship behavior in varying degrees. For example, one approach would lean more towards task behavior than the relationship behavior. The leader will need to incorporate a mixture of 2 different approaches in their style depending on the team member’s performance readiness. The first is task/directive behavior: which is, the degree to which a leader establishes roles and structure and provides the what, where, when and how by delegating tasks and guiding others (What is Situational Leadership, 2014). The second is relationship/supportive behavior which is the extent to which a leader engages in two-way communication by facilitating interaction and active listening (What is Situational Leadership, 2014). This leader supports and motivates their followers and helps the followers believe in their abilities to perform and complete certain tasks.

Situational Leadership Model

Based on this theory of leadership, Hersey and Blanchard created the Situational Leadership model. Which helps guide a leader in differentiating a team member’s performance readiness level and the style required to tackle each of these levels.

Regarding the Performance Readiness levels, there are 4 developmental levels that have been determined by looking at 2 main aspects, C0mpetence and Commitment. Each performance readiness level is determined by the degree of skill and knowledge that an individual possesses to perform a task (Competence), and the level of motivation and confidence that an individual possesses to perform a task (Commitment) (Mwai,2011). Both of these aspects are present in the performance readiness (R) levels, in varying degrees, as seen in the table below.

As for the Leadership Styles, there are the four conditions that encompass the follower’s needs. In order for a leader to accordingly influence their team members, they will need to develop 4 styles, one for each performance readiness level. As explained earlier the leader will use a different combination of task and relationship behavior in order for them to influence the team member.

Level Performance Readiness Leadership Style
    1 R1-Lowcompetence/High Commitment: This is the case where followers lack the ability required to complete the task and are, therefore, inexperienced, but on the other hand, are highly motivated and confident about learning. An example of that would be a new staff member or someone who is being introduced to a new task or new career path without prior experience in the field.   Directing/Telling Style (Corresponds to R1): High Task/Low Relationship. The leader uses their experience to make decisions, give direction, and create momentum. Here, the leader motivates, as well as directs, the team member to help them complete a task or reach a certain goal. The leader keeps track of the follower’s performance in order to provide feedback because the team member lacks the knowledge and skill to complete the task.  
2 R2-SomeCompetence/Low Commitment: This is a follower who has an idea on how to perform the task but is not motivated to complete it. The lack of commitment in this level is usually due to low confidence in their knowledge and ability which results in a low motivational level to perform the task.    Selling/Explaining (Corresponds to R2): Some Task/High Relationship. This is where the leader clarifies decisions and recognizes enthusiasm of the team member in order to ensure their understanding. Due to the follower lacking some knowledge to perform the task, they require guidance from the leader in order to increase their level of commitment.  
3 R3-ModerateCompetence/Variable Commitment: This is a follower that has the ability to perform a task but lacks the confidence and motivation to complete it. This could usually be due to self-doubt and insecurity in one’s abilities or in some cases due to either boredom and/or apathy. Practicing/Involving (Corresponds to R3): Low Task/High Relationship. This is where both, the leader and the follower, brainstorm alternatives in an effort to establish alignment. At this point, the follower has developed  competent skills and knowledge but requires support from the leader to help complete the task.  
4 R4-HighCompetence/High Commitment: This follower has the ability and confidence to perform the task. This follower is not in need of a lot of guidance or external motivation from the leader in order to perform a task. Delegating/Entrusting (Corresponds to R4): Low Task/Low Relationship. This is where the leader trusts the team member to use their experience to accomplish the task. This is the stage where the leader believes that the follower has the experience and the confidence to be able to complete the task without being overseen by the leader. They are given the autonomy to complete the task, knowing that the leader is available if they are needed.

Views about the theory:

When discussing a theory, it is important to highlight the varying opinions and critiques pertaining to it. Below is a list of points that illustrate the usefulness of the theory and why it might be preferred over other theories of leadership. These views are listed in the following points which were best put together by C. Shonhiwa (2016):

  • This model is used to develop leaders not just to define or classify them. It is a perceptive model as it informs people of what they need to do to help address an employee’s needs.
  • This theory is also useful with establishing rapport within the team with, also, bringing out the best in other people.
  • It is practical and easy to understand and implement. It is  simple and does not use sophisticated tools or methods, therefore it can be easy to implement. It is also versatile as it can be applied to different settings not just as a tool at workplace, but it can be also applied to the home and school lives too. It provides you with guidelines and uses a common leadership style across all units in an organization, be it local, national, or international.
  • Additionally, this model  recognizes individual differences and realistically teaches flexibility as it helps the leader adapt to different situations. It also stresses the importance of the individual development of employees and that a successful leader needs to pay attention to the individual and their needs as well as the collective team (Shonhiwa,2016).

Each theory has its strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, it is important to pinpoint these weaknesses and present some critiques of the theory in order to recognize that there is always room for improvement. The following points were raised in critique of this model:

  • This model fails to shed light on team influences versus one-on-one. In other words, it is more difficult to try and apply this model in a team setting, as team members have different skills levels and needs which makes this model’s application unrealistic and sometimes even inefficient/impractical.
  • The model is ambiguous and suffers to give enough justifications and explanations behind the different style classifications. Furthermore, there is  no justification to refer to the combination of commitment and competence or an explanation to the reasons behind the different need levels and how they are conceptualized.
  • The literature that is available is not enough as there is not sufficient research that has been made available. Accordingly, there is not enough empirical data to prove the theory’s efficacy and whether or not it is reliable and/or valid. There a lot of dissertations that have been made on the subject but they have not been published, and, thus, not made available to the public or open for peer review (Shonhiwa, 2016).

Conclusion

Situational leadership is considered to be a modern theory of leadership that is fit for the 21st century leader. It emphasizes the importance of customizing one-on-one communication by recognizing that each individual requires a different approach. In that way, leaders can become more effective and more inclusive of their team members. Even though this theory is versatile and can be applied in different contexts, it is important to be aware of its limitations as well, and take them into consideration.

References

Blanchard, K. H., Zigarmi, D., & Nelson, R. B. (1993). Situational Leadership® After 25 Years: A Retrospective. Journal of Leadership Studies1(1), 21–36. doi: 10.1177/107179199300100104

Hersey, P., Blanchard, K. & Johnson, D.E. (2001). Management of organizational behavior (8th ed.)Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Mwai, E. (2011,May). Creating Effective Leaders Through Situational Leadership Retrieved from https://www.theseus.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/33027/Mwai_Esther.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y

(2014, November 25). What is Situational Leadership? How Flexibility Leads to Success. Retrieved from https://online.stu.edu/articles/education/what-is-situational-leadership.aspx

Shonhiwa, C. (Dec, 2016). An Examination of Situational Leadership Approach: Strengths and Weaknesses. Cross Currents: An International Peer Reviewed Journal on Humanities & Social Sciences.