The Four Leadership Styles of Situational Leadership®

Situational Leadership® is a common-sense, contingency-based leadership model that consists of four common leadership styles. Two points of clarification in that regard:

  1. Unfortunately, “common sense” is anything but “common practice.”
  2. “Contingency-based” basically means the correct answer to the question:
    1. “What is the best leadership style?”
    2. Answer: It depends!

A Situational Leader employs one of four leadership styles that provide him or her with the highest probability of success in every situation they encounter. Those situations are a function of the task that needs to be performed, in conjunction with the task-related ability and willingness of the follower identified to perform it. Based on the objective assessment of those parameters, and with the responsibility of successfully and effectively influencing the follower, the leader responds to the situation with one of four leadership styles. Those styles are operationally defined by Task/Directive Behavior and Relationship/Supportive Behavior:

  • Task/Directive Behavior – the extent to which the leader tells the follower what to do, how to do it, where it needs to be done and when it needs to be completed
  • Relationship/Supportive Behavior – the extent to which the leader engages in open dialog with the follower, actively listens and provides recognition/reinforcement for task-related progress

The Four Leadership Styles of The Situational Leadership(R) Model


  • Style 1 or a telling leadership style, is characterized by the leader using moderate to high amounts of Task Behavior and moderate to low amounts of Relationship Behavior. The leader makes decisions surrounding the timely completion of the task and provides the follower with the benefit of his/her experience in that regard. The flow of communication is from the leader to the follower. Questions posed by the leader are typically focused on clarity (.e.g. “Do you have any questions on the instructions we’ve just reviewed?”).

Style 1 is a short-term approach intended to create movement. It aligns with followers who have limited (if any) experience or skill performing the task in question and (for whatever reason) are either insecure or unmotivated to try. Style 1 requires close supervision by the leader for the express purpose of identifying any signs of incremental progress (to be recognized by the leader in an effort to accelerate ongoing development).


  • Style 2 or a selling leadership style, describes a leadership approach that is high on both Task and Relationship Behavior. The leader still maintains decision rights regarding what the follower needs to be doing, how they should be doing it and when it needs to be completed, but that structure is provided in combination with ample opportunity for discussion of why the task is important and where it fits into the overall scheme of operation. The leader also actively recognizes the enthusiasm, interest and commitment of the follower for learning and gaining task-related experience.

Style 2 is intended to create buy-in and understanding. It aligns with followers who have limited (if any) experience performing the task but exude both confidence and motivation toward the process of leader-driven skill development. Like Style 1, effective use of this approach depends upon direct observations by the leader, which fuel focused performance feedback discussions and increased dialog.


  • Style 3 or a participating leadership style, is fundamentally different from Styles 1 and 2 in that it is “follower driven” as opposed to “leader driven.” As such, it depicts an approach that is high on Relationship Behavior but low on Task Behavior. In that context (and from the leader’s perspective), the follower has the ability to perform the task in question at a sustained and acceptable level but lacks either the confidence or the motivation/commitment to do so.

The objective of Style 3 is to create alignment. If the follower is developing, he/she might have demonstrated task proficiency but still have some degree of trepidation about performing it on their own. If the follower is regressing, they are aware they can effectively perform but have lost commitment, motivation (or both) to do so. Either way, the leader needs to discuss the follower’s willingness by asking open-ended questions intended to help the follower recognize the source of the performance challenge and generate a viable solution.


  • Style 4 or a delegating leadership style, is another “follower-driven” leadership approach that is characterized by low amounts of both Task and Relationship Behavior. The follower can perform the task at a sustained and acceptable level and is both confident and motivated to do so.

The intent of Style 4 is to create/enhance task mastery and autonomy. It aligns with followers that have significant experience performing the task at or above expectation, in combination with a level of intrinsic motivation that drives their ongoing commitment to excellence. The flow of communication with Style 4 is from the follower to the leader and is typically initiated by questions from the leader that feature significant degrees of freedom (e.g.  “From your perspective, what is working and what do we need to consider doing differently moving forward?”).

Based on your own experience as a leader (and as a follower), consider that the most inconsistent thing a leader can do is to treat everybody the same. A leader’s approach should be dictated by the nuances of each situation they encounter. Situational Leadership® is a practical, repeatable model that helps leaders do just that!