Our History: Organized Common Sense

Dr. Hersey used to refer to Situational Leadership® as “organized common sense.” In reality, that was an understated sound bite that encapsulated his efforts to integrate 50 years of pioneering research in organizational behavior into a simple, practical and usable framework that leaders could actively leverage to help them navigate the waters associated with effective influence. Here is an overview of those foundational contributions.

Progression of Theories

SCIENTIFIC MANAGEMENT: At a time in our history where there was a prominent distinction between labor and management, Frederick Winslow Taylor studied the work patterns of laborers in search of production efficiencies. His contributions identified what would come to be known as “task behavior” and the process he initiated would grow and become all that is “big data.”

HUMAN RELATIONS THEORY: In the middle of the Great Depression, Elton Mayo intended to extend the findings of Taylor by studying the effects of illumination on productivity. What he stumbled into was the power of “relationship behavior” and the original notion that highly engaged workers can make significant contributions to productivity whether they can see what they are doing or not.

OHIO STATE AND MICHIGAN STUDIES: Parallel investigations at highly competitive universities sought answers to the burning research question of the day, “What leadership style is best?” After years of research on thousands of leaders, the irrefutable conclusion reached was, “It depends.” If nothing else, these studies will be remembered for providing the first leader-focused “four-box framework.”

HIEARCHY OF NEEDS: Abraham Maslow focused his attention on the human motivation side of the equation. In essence, the question Maslow posed was, “Why do people do what they do?” The answers he came up with identified a distinction between “higher order and lower order” needs and also introduced the whole idea of “prepotency.”

THEORY X AND THEORY Y: Douglas McGregor was one of the first researchers to examine leadership from the inside-out. His conclusions suggested that leader assumptions or predispositions about followers were key determining factors in the leader’s eventual success. At the time, it was thought that those assumptions translated (almost directly) to leadership approach (i.e., assumptions dictate style). Dr. Hersey (among others) would later validate McGregor’s findings while at the same time demonstrating his primary conclusion to be misleading.

MATURITY – IMMATURITY: Chris Argyris made many contributions to the field of organizational behavior and human development. Chief among them were the predictable patterns of migration an individual or team would make as they learned what they were doing and developed a sense of comfort or confidence regarding their ability to consistently perform at or above a pre-determined standard.

ACHIEVEMENT THEORY: Some people have a burning desire to “be all they can be.” By comparison, many others (quite simply) do not. David McClelland was one of the first researchers to not only study this premise but to offer distinctive, behavioral profiles that clearly characterized individuals with high achievement orientation. The implications for leadership and influence were implicit.

MOTIVATION – HYGIENE THEORY: Advancing the contributions of Maslow and others, Frederick Herzberg uncovered the notion that the elements of job-related human motivation are in many cases separate and distinct from the elements of job-related dissatisfaction. The implications of Herzberg’s work remain at the forefront of organizational stewardship. The more an employer can eliminate or minimize sources of dissatisfaction and provide an environment conducive to motivation, the healthier that organizational culture will be.

These are but a few of the prominent theories that formed the foundation of Situational Leadership®. Admittedly they are different, but all are centered on the unifying objective of helping leaders more effectively influence.


  1. Google any of the references identified above and do a “deeper dive” into the contributions of these pioneers. Identify one aspect of their original research that remains relevant to a leadership challenge you currently face.
  2.  Take action on the basis of your investigation!