Situational Leadership® and SLII®: Points of Distinction

“Is there really any difference between the Situational Leadership® process and SLII®?”  Well, based on 50+ years of experience, and in the spirit of balance and objective analysis, we believe this is a question worth answering. Beyond that really, we feel obligated to ensure the similarities and differences between the two models are understood, appreciated and actively considered. Let’s start by reviewing some well-documented history to find out why.

The History of Situational Leadership®

In May of 1969, Dr. Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard published an article entitled: “Life Cycle Theory of Leadership.” That article presented the Situational Leadership® Model in its original form and also served as the foundation of what would become the best-selling organizational behavior text of all time: “Management of Organizational Behavior” (M.O.B.), originally published in 1969.

In 1979, Blanchard, along with his wife Margie, started Blanchard Training and Development (known today as The Ken Blanchard Companies [KBC]). In 1985, Blanchard coauthored “Leadership and the One Minute Manager” with Pat and Drea Zigarmi and concurrently introduced SLII®. SLII® was positioned as an evolutionary product that “acknowledged the foundation of Situational Leadership® and revised the concepts based on feedback received from clients as well as the work of several leading researchers in the field of group development.”

Situational Leadership® vs SLII®

By definition the term “evolutionary” implies a disruptive breakthrough that renders the previous version obsolete. As it applies to SLII®, we (CLS) have forever taken issue with the premise that “newer” translates to “better” and simply encourage those who are interested to objectively investigate. Two points in that regard.

The first is to consider how the two models differ on the dynamics of development. In particular, a task for which the follower has limited familiarity or experience (i.e., not currently performing at a sustained and acceptable level).

SLII® views development as “both linear and evolutionary with followers approaching a new task for the first time as enthusiastic, motivated and committed.” In KBC’s descriptive terms, this means the process of development initiates with “enthusiastic beginners.” Following a structured intervention by their manager, those followers progress to become “disillusioned learners,” then “capable but cautious performers” and, eventually, “self-reliant achievers.”

Key Points of Distinction

  1. The Situational Leadership® approach does not view task-specific development as linear, evolutionary or predictable. Quite the opposite! Development is, has been and forever will be dynamic! Things change rapidly and consistently. Development is iterative (now more than ever!) and with no end in sight.
  2. The Situational Leadership® Model would identify an “enthusiastic beginner” as “R2: Unable but Confident or Willing”. If an “enthusiastic beginner” becomes a “disillusioned learner,” we would describe that movement as R2-R1 regression (i.e., a follower that was “Unable and Willing” has remained “Unable” and becomes less “Willing”). Further, if a follower initiates at R2 for a task, the leader needs to drive a three-step progression to mastery, instead of four.

To us, the notion that the process of task-specific development unwaveringly commences with followers that are “enthusiastic, motivated and committed” presents challenges. As we see it, in a world besieged by disruptive change, enthusiasm can (and does) waver. Each of us can periodically lack confidence or motivation to absorb a new responsibility and will welcome a leader that will tell us what to do, and how to do it. For clarity’s sake, followers can begin development with enthusiasm (and quite often do), but there is no hard and fast rule that ensures that will be the case. It is important for leaders to not only develop the skills to accurately assess the willingness and ability of followers to perform, but also the flexibility necessary to respond regardless of how enthusiastic those followers may be.

The second primary point of distinction drawn between Situational Leadership® and SLII® focuses upon the base of research KBC cites as the driving impetus for the SLII® “evolution.” While we recognize that some of you are not academicians and (as such) are most likely not interested in a detailed research analysis (which we will spare you from here), we feel the few points highlighted throughout this section warrant your consideration as you compare the two models. Bottom line: we wholeheartedly believe “group or team development” and “task-specific development” to be two, very different things. In that regard, we pose this question:

“Is it possible to enthusiastically embrace the opportunity to join a new team or group (e.g., receive a promotion) and still (on the basis of objective analysis) be ‘Unable and Insecure’ when it comes time to perform a specific task that is now part of your updated responsibilities?”

We would say, “Absolutely!” and offer that one’s ability and/or willingness to integrate into a new team or group is by no means guaranteed to progress on a parallel track with mastery of the job-related requirements associated with that integration.

Beyond that, there are details associated with the research cited that we feel everyone with true interest on the topic should investigate. For instance, the group development research cited by KBC for SLII® featured:

  • Therapy groups (e.g., clinically delinquent teenage boys)
  • T-groups (e.g., participants seeking personal growth and fulfillment)
  • Encounter groups (e.g., focused upon human potential and body awareness)

The limitations called out by the primary researchers conducting those studies based on the types of groups being investigated brought us to conclude long ago that teams are not tasks!

Comparatively, the Situational Leadership® Model remains a “common sense model” that sits upon decades of pioneering research in leadership development and organizational behavior. CLS has made several refinements of the language used to describe the model’s utility over the years but believe the model itself offers practitioners timeless skills in its original form.

So, are there differences between the Situational Leadership® approach and SLII®? In a word—yes! And, to the extent that selecting one model over the other is important to you and your organization, we urge you to fully investigate those differences and make an informed decision.

  • Roy B. Lacoursiere, The Life Cycle of Groups: Group Developmental State Theory (New York: Human Sciences Press, 1980).
  • Bruce W. Tuckman. Developmental Sequence in Small Groups (Psychological Bulletin, 1965, Vol. 63, No. 6, 385-397, Naval Medical Research Institute, Bethesda, Maryland).