Situational Leadership® Quadrants: Four Different Styles

The Situational Leadership® methodology is a model leaders have been using for over 50 years to help them effectively influence others. It is a model with a rich history. It combines decades of pioneering research in leadership development and organizational behavior into a practical, common-sense language leaders can leverage when it is time to lead!

It is a follower-driven model. This means the leader begins with the task that needs to be completed, then assesses the readiness of the follower to perform that task and then selects and delivers a style of leadership that provides the highest probability of success. This article will provide an overview of each of the four leadership styles.

Situational Leadership® Quadrants

situational leadership styles

To grasp the potential behind each quadrant of the Situational Leadership® methodology, you first have to understand the parameters that form their function:

  • Task or directive behavior: The extent to which a leader tells the follower what to do, how to do it, when it needs to be done and (if more than one follower is involved in production) who is to do what
  • Relationship or supportive behavior: The extent to which a leader asks open-ended questions, provides recognition and socio-emotional support and actively listens

If you consider each axis as a 10-point scale, a leader could be:

  • High task/low relationship behavior – style 1 or S1 (telling, directing, guiding)
  • High task/high relationship behavior – style 2 or S2 (selling, explaining, coaching)
  • High relationship/low task behavior – style 3 or S3 (participating, facilitating, problem solving)
  • Low relationship/low task behavior – style 4 or S4 (delegating, empowering, monitoring)

There is no such thing as a “best style” or “preferred approach.” Each of these styles works, and each of these styles doesn’t. It depends upon the nuances of the situation in which the approach is being employed.

Telling Leadership Style

A leader using S1 would make decisions regarding task completion and closely supervise the progress of the follower during implementation.

  • Match: This approach aligns with a follower that is responsible for performing a task they know little (or nothing) about. Because they have such limited experience and/or skill, their confidence is often impacted as well (they don’t want to let themselves or others down). A leader that provides specific direction creates movement. And when that movement takes place, the leader is close by to observe it, acknowledge it and recognize it. This positively impacts both familiarity with the task as well as the follower’s confidence and commitment to perform it
  • Mismatch: This approach does not align with followers that have task-specific ability and willingness. When followers know what they are doing and enjoy doing it, an attempt by the leader to direct and closely supervise activity is perceived as micromanagement and has a negative impact on employee engagement and overall job-related satisfaction

S1 is a short-term approach primarily intended to alleviate any insecurity the follower may have regarding performance and ensure they get pointed in the right direction.

Selling Leadership Style

A leader using S2 would still make decisions regarding task completion but would also involve the follower in a discussion of why those decisions were being made and how successfully completing the task fit into the overall scheme or “big picture.”

  • Match: This approach aligns with a follower who doesn’t know what to do but is eager and enthusiastic to learn. They are confident they have what it takes to be successful and willing to listen to instructions and explanations that accelerate that progress. They often will have questions of their own and will respond positively to opportunities for discussion in that regard. It is important in this context that the leader does not confuse enthusiasm with expertise and maintains control of the decision-making process
  • Mismatch: Similar to style S1, this style does not align well with followers who have moderate to high amounts of task-related knowledge, experience and skill. It is quite often perceived as condescending or patronizing and results in decreasing levels of both engagement and commitment

S2 is a “teaching style.” The leader provides the follower with the benefits of their expertise in an effort to accelerate growth and development and reduce the time to autonomy.

Participating Leadership Style

A leader using S3 would listen to a follower describe a challenge or opportunity with a particular task, then help that follower decide and determine the best path forward.

  • Match: This approach aligns with followers who have proven they can produce results on a sustained and acceptable level, but for whatever reason still struggle with the confidence to “do it on their own.” There is a major difference between style S3 and styles S1 and S2: Decision-making! Style S3 recognizes the decision to be made is the responsibility of the follower. As such, the leader listens and asks questions (that almost force the follower to reflect on their circumstances), then facilitates as the follower determines and buys into the path forward
  • Mismatch: This style tends to frustrate and increase anxiety with followers who really do not know what decision to make. Think about it. If a follower truly doesn’t know what to do and has no base of relevant experience to rely upon, seeking their input will not only not provide a viable solution, but it will also exacerbate insecurity and diminish commitment

S3 puts the leader and the follower on equal footing regarding the completion of the task. The leader’s primary responsibility with this approach is to ensure the follower considers a spectrum of practical alternatives before committing.

Delegating Leadership Style

A leader using S4 would allow the follower to make and implement task-related decisions and be there for support if need be.

  • Match: This approach aligns with followers who have demonstrated mastery of a particular task. The single most important element of recognition for a high performer is the ability to determine how they will proceed and execute their agreed-upon responsibilities. It is the ultimate demonstration of trust:
    • “You know what to do because I have seen you do it repeatedly. I am here if you need me, but you have earned the right to make and implement decisions associated with this task.”
  • Mismatch: This approach is irresponsible with followers who do not have a track record of sustained and acceptable performance. In that context and with followers who lack task-related knowledge, experience and/or skill, this style is often referred to as “abdication” or “abandonment.”

S4 recognizes the task-related decision rights of the follower. The leader still meets and checks in with the follower, but primarily to see what the follower has learned and if they need or want any support moving forward.

Which Situational Leadership® Style Should You Use?

The style you use as a leader should be determined by thoughtful consideration of the variables that are unique to the situation you are attempting to influence:

  • What is the task at its lowest common denominator and in its most well-defined form?
  • What is the ability of the follower to perform? Do they have a track-record of sustained and acceptable performance?
  • What is the willingness of the follower to perform? Have they demonstrated confidence, commitment and motivation?

Too often leaders enact an approach that is comfortable for them, regardless of the situation they face. Some of us are naturally inclined to favor style S1 (we like to make decisions and control progress). Others favor style S2 (we like to maintain control of decisions but discuss and explain our rationale). Still others gravitate toward style S3 (we are most comfortable asking questions and helping others make decisions). And some (although statistically far fewer) favor style S4 (we trust the people we work with to make and implement decisions with limited reliance on us as a source for that decision making).

Situational Leaders do not let their comfort with one approach or another be their guide! They exercise the necessary discipline to objectively assess their circumstances, then proceed accordingly.

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At The Center for Leadership Studies, we have been at the forefront of leadership development for over 50 years. We truly believe, on the basis of our current reality, the Situational Leadership® Model is more relevant today than it ever has been for leaders across industries and in every walk of life.

Any one of the four approaches identified above has the potential to be the highest probability style. But it is impossible to determine that potential without first spending concentrated time assessing the variables that constitute the opportunity to influence.