Situational Leadership® and SLII®: Points of Distinction

“Is there really any difference between Situational Leadership® and SLII®?” Every time we attend a major training conference, such as ASTD 2013, we are reminded just how much confusion still exists when it comes to comparing the two. Clearly, there are many similarities between the two models. And, when you do a little digging, there really isn’t any huge mystery as to why that is the case.

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 left CLS and (with his wife Marge) 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.”

Now, to be completely candid, we simply have to take a brief time out and tip our hats to KBC to say, “Well done.” Said another way, “Who in their right minds wants to consciously impede evolution?” By definition, evolution takes a foundation that works and tweaks it. If you are KBC, this allows you to acknowledge the similarities of SLII® with Situational Leadership® while introducing incremental enhancements that will allow practitioners to more effectively combat an uncertain (but no doubt more challenging) future. Who can argue with that? Well, we think we can. And, in so doing, perhaps shed a little light on how to distinguish evolution from convolution moving forward.

The first point we would ask you to consider is the difference in how the two models describe the dynamics of follower development on a task for which he/she has limited familiarity or experience. 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, they progress to become “disillusioned learners,” then “capable but cautious performers” and, eventually, “self-reliant achievers.”


Key points of distinction:

  • Situational Leadership® does not view task-specific development as necessarily linear, evolutionary or predictable
  • Situational Leadership® would identify an “enthusiastic beginner” as “R2: Unable but Confident or Willing” (see figures 2 and 3). 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”)
  • To us, the notion that the process of task-specific development unwaveringly commences with followers that are “enthusiastic, motivated and committed” constitutes wishful thinking. As a matter of fact, we pose the following question in our workshops on a routine basis:

    “Is there something we could ask you to do, that you have never done before, that you would be anything but “enthusiastic, motivated and committed” to take on?”

    Most people look at us with a gaze that suggests, “Are you kidding me?” then list four or five examples with limited (if any) hesitation. 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 develop the flexibility necessary to respond to followers, regardless of how enthusiastically they may approach a newly assigned task or responsibility.

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 many of you are not academicians and 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 contemplate 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 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 these studies based on the types of groups being investigated brought us to conclude long ago that teams are not tasks!

So, are there differences between Situational Leadership® 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.



Review the research results identified below and answer the following questions:

  1. How are the dynamics of joining a new team similar or different to the dynamics of learning a new task?
  2. Have you ever been an “unenthusiastic beginner?”

  • 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).
  • Convolution: A complexity or intricacy that makes a point more difficult to follow
  • T-Group: Sometimes also referred to as sensitivity-training; participants learn/discover things about themselves