Situational Leadership® and The Leadership Challenge

Can you imagine asking an accomplished cook about the secret to their success and getting an answer like this?

“Salt! I am a huge believer in the power of salt. I’ve heard about other spices of course, but I am committed to salt.”

Not likely, right? And (cheesy segue aside), I’d suggest the same logic applies to building leadership skills. Effectively influencing others is a function of any number of different ingredients that (when used in combination) consistently produce results that make a discernible difference.

With that as a backdrop, the paragraphs that follow are intended to address the compatibility of two, very well established “leadership ingredients”:

  • Situational Leadership®
  • The Leadership Challenge

The first thing that strikes you is that both approaches have irrefutably withstood the test of time. We estimate that over 14 million leaders around the world have experienced formal training in some version of Situational Leadership® since its release in the early 1970s. “The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations” was first published in 1987. Since that time, well over two million leaders have purchased the book and completed the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI).

At face value, this would suggest that while the landscape of leadership has changed significantly since both were introduced, both frameworks remain core, common and critical content for an expanding (and increasingly diverse) population of leaders.

Further, I would suggest the primary driver of that continued relevance is the fact that both sit upon rock-solid foundations of universally accepted research. Dr. Hersey, the founder of The Center for Leadership Studies, developed Situational Leadership® after extensive study of organizational behavior (in general) and leadership development (in particular). The Situational Leadership® Model integrates decades of pioneering contributions in those fields into a practical, usable and repeatable model grounded in four, foundational competencies:

  • DIAGNOSE – Leaders need to be able to identify a specific task and objectively assess the ability and willingness of the individual or team performing it
  • ADAPT – Regardless of the leader’s personal level of comfort, they need to be able to pursue an approach that has a high probability of success (based on the diagnosis)
  • COMMUNICATE – Leaders need to be able to effectively execute or deliver each leadership style (empowering, participation or directive)
  • ADVANCE – Fundamentally, leaders add value by accelerating the development and reversing the regression of those they influence

The Leadership Challenge is the product of evidence-based research over an extended period of time (initiated in 1982). That research synthesizes the central themes of thousands of answers to the following questions:

  • When were you at your best as a leader?
  • (In essence) How did you get people to follow you?

Those themes are translated into actionable practices leaders can employ to increase their effectiveness:

  • MODEL THE WAY – Leaders need to identify their personal values, share and affirm those values and ensure their actions align (the inevitable “walk” is synchronized with the proverbial “talk”)
  • INSPIRE A SHARED VISION – Leaders shape the future by routinely soliciting input and enhancing their perspective on “what is possible” as compared to “what is”
  • CHALLENGE THE PROCESS – Leaders look for opportunities to improve by taking calculated risks, generating “small wins” and learning along the way
  • ENABLE OTHERS TO ACT – Leaders demonstrate a propensity for action by meeting followers “where they are,” building trust and helping them develop competence
  • ENCOURAGE THE HEART – Leaders recognize the contributions of others and celebrate victories (large and small) along the way

At face value and for the record, CLS sees zero incompatibility between these two approaches. Who can possibly argue with a framework that helps leaders align “what they say” with “what they do”; or that emphasizes the importance of calibrating the existing vision of the organization with the realities of its day-to-day operation; or that routinely celebrates progress as a very good thing?

Beyond that, we believe there are sincere and actionable synergies. In brief:

  • When a leader acts as a catalyst in the development of others, they need to embrace the iterative nature of that progress. Situational Leadership® describes that migration as the developmental cycle and emphasizes specific actions leaders can take to identify the calculated risks that have a high probability of producing “small wins”
  • Age-old leadership “chicken and egg” question:
    • “Do you have to have trust to lead others or do you build trust by effectively leading?”

It strikes us that enabling others to act is what being a situational leader is all about. Depending upon the task at hand, the process of enabling could translate to a number of different leadership approaches. Recognition of that reality entails coming to grips with the notion that leadership isn’t necessarily about what followers want; it is much more about what they need.

As such, if your true objective is to build leaders, your approach needs to include a number of complementary ingredients. In the context of this blog, please consider that a good portion of “The Leadership Challenge” is that it is indeed situational.


  1. If you haven’t done so already, pick up a copy of the “The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations.” If you read it a long time ago, dust it off and review it.
  2. Likewise for “The Situational Leader.”
    1. How do you think the two approaches are:
      1. Similar?
      2. Different?
    2. How do you think both approaches can be integrated to help you and your organization build leaders?