Situational Leadership® Theory

Technically, the Situational Leadership® methodology is not a theory. Dr. Paul Hersey, the founder of The Center for Leadership Studies and the person who developed the Situational Leadership® Model, went out of his way to make this point clear.

“A theory gives you something interesting to think about. Conversely a model gives you something you can do!”

The Situational Leadership® Model sits on a foundation of over 50 years of pioneering research on leadership development and organizational behavior. This article will discuss how it is different, its key elements, what it looks like in practice and the impact it can have on an organization.

What is Situational Leadership®?

Situational Leadership® is a flexible framework that enables leaders to tailor their approach to the needs of their team or individual members. Developed by Paul Hersey in 1969, this model provides a repeatable process for matching leadership behaviors to the performance needs of those being influenced. Unlike other leadership models, Situational Leadership® recognizes that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, allowing leaders to adapt their behaviors to suit the unique needs of each situation.

What Makes Situational Leadership® Different?

The primary difference between the Situational Leadership® framework and other theories of leadership is that Situational Leadership® is a behavioral model driven by cognitive skill.

For the longest time, researchers studied leadership on a track that was separate and distinct from human motivation. They wanted to identify the “best” leadership style.

What they found was that there was no such thing as “the best style of leadership.” They all worked and they all didn’t. It depended! And the two variables it depended upon the most were the tasks that needed to be accomplished, in combination with the individual or team responsible for performing them.

So, the Situational Leadership® approach is “different” because it is a contingency model. The style of the leader depends upon the task and the task-related ability and willingness of a follower to successfully execute it.

The leader aligns with the follower on what needs to be done, as well as the level of experience, skill, confidence and commitment the follower possesses to make that happen. Then the leader determines which leadership approach would result in the highest probability of success.

The Cognitive-Behavioral Interplay

  • A task is identified
  • The leader assesses the behavior of the follower relative to that task
  • The leader then adapts their behavior accordingly

Key Elements of the Situational Leadership® Model

The key elements of the Situational Leadership® Model are the task and the follower.

The Task

Consider a task as an activity that rolls up into a responsibility that rolls up into a role. So, a salesperson (role) would have administrative, customer-facing, competitive knowledge and internal communication obligations (responsibilities), each of which would be made up of a number of activities (tasks).

Another way to look at it is that a forest is made up of a number of trees, each of which has many leaves. The Situational Leadership® methodology helps leaders identify and focus upon “the leaf,” or “lowest common denominator,” as the target of their influence attempt

The Follower

People do not fit into boxes. With the Situational Leadership® approach, people fit into boxes based on what they are being asked to do (task). Once the leader and follower have aligned on the task, they need to align on the readiness of that follower to perform that task. Performance Readiness® is the follower’s task-related ability and willingness.

  • Ability is defined as the follower’s task-specific knowledge, experience and skill
  • Willingness is defined as the follower’s task-specific confidence, commitment and motivation

The leader’s approach then becomes a function of the thoughtful determination of the task and the objective assessment of the follower’s ability and willingness to perform it.

Impact of the Situational Leadership® Model

There are three ways to measure the impact of the Situational Leadership® Model in an organization:

    1. Productivity – Does the job get done? Are outcomes achieved? Beyond a shadow of a doubt, leaders at all levels within an organization are judged, and the most visible element of that judgement is whether productivity targets are met, not met or exceeded
    2. Engagement – How do people feel about working for the leader? It is clearly possible to achieve results of significance as a leader but do it in a manner that leaves people feeling used or broken or underappreciated
    3. Retention – Do people remain on the team and/or with the organization? The long-term fallout of an ineffective leader can often be measured by how many associates have opted to quit and leave or, unfortunately, quit…and stay!

While all three levels of impact analysis are important, which one is the most critical? Stated differently, if you could only impact one as a leader, which one would it be?

While there are arguments all around, Situational Leaders target and emphasize positively impacting employee engagement. They do so by matching their approach to the needs of the followers they lead. And generally speaking, highly engaged employees meet or exceed productivity targets and are far more likely to stay right where they are!

Improve Your Teams With Learning Solutions From The Center for Leadership Studies

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, that the Situational Leadership® Model is more relevant today than it ever has been for leaders across industries and in every walk of life.

The key to its relevance is its practicality. It is a common-sense framework that helps leaders indoctrinate beginners, leverage the strengths of proven high performers and discuss developmental challenges with those somewhere in between!

Contact us today to learn more!