The History of the Situational Leadership® Framework

The Situational Leadership® framework was the product of over 50 years of pioneering research in leadership development and organizational behavior. One challenge with those discoveries is that many provided conflicting results regarding who leaders were, what they did and what the most effective style of leadership was.

Another challenge was that leadership was studied independently. Studies of human motivation, professional growth and development were investigated on a separate track.

The Situational Leadership® approach was one of the first “contingency models.” It combined the behavior of the leader with the skill level and motivation of the follower. This article will provide an overview of the primary research that forms the foundation of the Hersey and Blanchard Situational Leadership® framework, as well as a brief synopsis of the collaboration that took place between Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in its development.

Foundations of Situational Leadership® Theory

While The Center for Leadership Studies doesn’t refer to the Situational Leadership® framework as a theory itself (it’s comprised of a model and process), here are several of the core theories that formed its foundation.

Scientific Management

An industrial engineer in the early 1900s, Frederick Winslow Taylor was obsessed with productivity enhancement. He firmly believed the role of management was to observe and measure each step of the production process, analyze those observations, then provide direction and feedback to labor on how to increase efficiency

The autocratic mode of leadership described by scientific management saw the role of the leader as a decision maker and feedback provider where the leader tells the follower what to do, how to do it, when it needs to be completed, etc. The task or directive behavior continuum of the Situational Leadership® Model has its roots in Taylor’s work

Human Relations Theory

Twenty years later during the Great Depression an industrial psychologist,  Elton Mayo, introduced a theory that stood in direct opposition to scientific management. His primary research was conducted with a group of women who assembled relay switches at the Hawthorne Electric Plant in Hawthorne Illinois

Mayo and his research team worked side by side with the assembly teams. The researchers asked the teams for suggestions on how productivity could be improved, then listened to and implemented those suggestions. This democratic mode of leadership sought to unleash the intrinsic power of teams. The relationship or supportive behavior continuum of the Situational Leadership® Model has its roots in Mayo’s work

Ohio State Studies

In the late 1940s, Ralph Stogdill and a group of researchers at Ohio State University commissioned an extended and extensive research project intended to answer the question that was on everybody’s mind after Taylor and Mayo had advanced their conflicting theories: What is the best style of leadership? This study examined thousands of managers across industries with two basic parameters:

  • Was the manager successful? Did the team or group the manager led hit their productivity targets?
  • Was the manager effective? How did the team or group working for the manager feel about the experience?

The results of the Ohio State studies were irrefutable. There is no such thing as a “best” style of leadership! Autocratic managers were both successful and effective! Same for democratic managers! As a matter of fact, the Ohio State studies identified a third style of leadership that was neither autocratic nor democratic. They referred to it at the time as the laissez faire style, which was the precursor to what we know today as delegation or empowerment. Stogdill used a four-box model or grid to convey the results of the Ohio State studies. That grid is still featured in the Situational Leadership® Model

Immaturity-Maturity Theory

While the Performance Readiness® continuum of the Situational Leadership® Model has its roots in the contributions of many (e.g., Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Frederick Herzberg’s motivation/hygiene theory), none were more influential than the contributions of Harvard professor Chris Argyris

Argyris examined the confidence and independent contribution of individuals and teams who were assigned new tasks over time. When they initiated, they had a strong tendency to respond favorably to autocratic leadership. The more comfortable they became with the task in question, the more they responded favorably to democratic and laissez-faire approaches

This continuum continues to represent the different levels of follower development a leader needs to assess as they determine the leadership style with the highest probability of success

So, the Situational Leadership® Model emanates from a holistic perspective. That perspective suggests the success and effectiveness of the leadership style is governed by the task that needs to be completed and the maturity (aka readiness) of the follower to complete it.

Hersey and Blanchard

There are, at best, a handful of co-authors within the organizational behavior-leadership development discipline that have contributed as much as Drs. Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard. Before Dr. Hersey’s passing, he and Dr. Blanchard were many things together, and to each other. They were friends who became colleagues and partners, and, eventually, competitors. But they always remained friends. All at The Center for Leadership Studies (CLS) were honored that Ken, Marshall Goldsmith and a host of others rearranged schedules and flew many miles to attend Dr. Hersey’s celebration of life in 2012.

The Hersey-Blanchard connection began on the campus of Ohio University (OU) during the 1960s. Dr. Hersey was a tenured professor who taught a very popular class on organizational behavior. After completing his doctorate at Cornell, Dr. Blanchard was a recently hired administrator at OU who was informed he needed to attend several classes being taught by OU professors. Having heard about the class Dr. Hersey taught, he approached him and asked if he could audit his class. Somewhat uncomfortably, Dr. Hersey informed Ken, “Nobody audits my class, but you are free to take it just like everybody else.”

Ken took the class and wound up agreeing to help Dr. Hersey write a book based on the content of the course. That book (“Management of Organizational Behavior”) wound up becoming the best-selling organizational behavior text of all time. Beyond that, the book introduced the life-cycle theory of leadership, which would go on to become the Situational Leadership® Model. Looking back, the timing of all of this could not have been better. Few organizations in the early 1970s did formal leadership training, but interest was unquestionably on the rise. Hersey and Blanchard recognized this momentum, formed a partnership (i.e., CLS) and moved to Escondido, California.

During the 1970s, the two became globally renowned as they traveled the world in service of clients that introduced the Situational Leadership® Model to their organizations. In the early 1980s, Ken left The Center for Leadership Studies and started a company called Blanchard Training and Development with his wife Margie. In 1983, Ken’s best-selling book “The One Minute Manager” (co-authored with Spencer Johnson) was published. His organization would go on to become The Ken Blanchard Companies and, more recently, Blanchard.

Dr. Hersey remained in Escondido as the CEO and founder of CLS until 2011 when he relocated the company to Cary, North Carolina. CLS remains dedicated to the mission of building leaders and driving behavior change through the Situational Leadership® Model. To date, over 15,000,000 managers around the world have successfully completed one form or another of Situational Leadership® training.

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

That model sits on a strong foundation of pioneering research. While the world leaders that operate in today is drastically different than it was when those studies were conducted, the fundamental principles associated with successful leadership and effective influence still hold true.