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This article explains the theory of Situational Leadership Model (SLM), developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in a practical way. After reading you will understand the basics of this powerful and flexible leadership styles tool.
What is Situational Leadership?
Being a leader is not always easy and leadership can be executed in different ways. Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard indicate that a number of factors are decisive for the style of leadership. It is not just the personal characteristics of the leader that are decisive; those of his employees are too. In addition, the situation is determinative and the leadership style depends on this. In the 1970s Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard specified and further developed the concept of their Situational Leadership Model.
Situational Leadership Model
Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard designed these four styles of situational leadership on the basis of a parabola. The horizontal axis the level of maturity (independence of the employee) is indicated in the gradation high to low. In the opposite direction on the horizontal axis the directive behavior from low to high is indicated. By this is meant the level of direction provided to the employee. On the vertical axis, they indicate low to high supportive behavior; the degree of support to the employees.
In their situational leadership theory they indicated that the effectiveness of the leadership style is dependent on the situation. But what is determinative for the situation? Both the maturity of the employees and their attitudes are determinative. Therefore Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard distinguish four levels of maturity that can be placed in their situational leadership model:
- S1. Directing: high directive and low supportive behavior.
- S2. Coaching: high directive and high supportive behavior.
- S3. Supporting: low directive and high supportive behavior.
- S4. Delegating: low directive and low supportive behavior.
According to Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard a leader will have to adapt his style to level of maturity of the employee. As the maturity increases, the independence of the employee also increases accordingly. Consequently, four leadership styles are created within situational leadership.
S1: Telling (Directing)
At this level of situational leadership, the leader has to deal with employees that are not competent and (still) unmotivated. This may have different causes. New and / or inexperienced employees are not capable enough to carry out tasks independently. It may be experienced as threatening when an employee is not competent enough to perform a task. This might cause him to postpone the task or do this unwillingly. Good instruction and monitoring of the entire work process would be the best style of leadership in this situation. This is also sometimes referred to as task-oriented leadership with little or no concern for human relationships and support.
S2: Selling (Coaching)
At this level of situational leadership, the employees have a desire to work independently but they are not capable of doing this yet. They are employees who have not reached full maturity and are hindered by circumstances for example a change or a reform of the organization. This employee wants to set to work enthusiastically but he cannot work independently because of his lack of skills and knowledge. A situation like this might make an employee insecure. By explaining his decision-making and by listening to the employee and giving him undivided attention, the leader is guiding him. This style can be compared to the consultative leadership style.
S3: Participating (Supporting)
At this level of situational leadership, the employees are capable but (temporarily) unwilling. They are qualified workers but because of the number of tasks, they might get the idea that they are being inundated with work. This can make them insecure and reluctant. To take away this insecurity, it is important that the leader confers with the employees and supports them in their work. By having employees participate in the decision-making process, acceptance will increase and the employees will be able to work independently again.
At this level of situational leadership, the employees can and want to carry out their tasks independently, they have a high level of task maturity as a result of which they need less support. Employees inform the leader about their progress of their own accord and at the same time they indicate when problems present themselves or when the work is stagnating. They become motivated because of their independence and as a result a leader does not have to consult with them continuously.
Adjustment of leadership behavior
Through situational leadership, leadership behaviour is immediately adjusted to the employee’s behaviour. According to Hershey and Blanchard the main factors are independence and suitability. Based on these two factors, they directly link four situational leadership styles. It should be noted that a leader must be willing to be very flexible with respect to his employees. In addition, employees will always develop themselves in the (positive) direction of delegating (S4).
Vice versa, the leader and his situational leadership style will directly influence the suitability of an employee. The employee will get more responsibility when he is more suitable for a certain task. This will increase his security which in turn will have a positive influence on his qualities. Despite this interaction, it is important that the leader is aware of the adoption of his leadership style in different situations. In an emergency he does well to apply the S1 Telling style, whereas S4 is more appropriate for an independently operating project group. In addition to the various situations, the leader will have to adapt his situational leadership styles to the suitability of his employees.
Comparison to transformational leadership
The comparison with Transformational Leadership is an easy one, although these are two distinct leadership methods. Where Transformational Leadership is mostly focused on a different way of leading an organisation going through a change, such as a merger, downsizing, or reorganisation, situational leadership looks at the situation, the employees’ independence and the complexity of the work. Transformational leadership supports employees during (significant) changes within the organisation, giving them trust and stimulating them to adjust to the change and contribute ideas.
Using Transformational Leadership, leaders are able to hold many discussions with their employees, openly informing them and engaging them in debate, increasing mutual trust. In that sense, it is similar to situational leadership. There, the support by the leader (relationship-oriented) in combination with direction by the leader (task-oriented) play an important role. Situational leadership can always be applied however. Transformational leadership is mostly relevant for changing organisations.
It’s Your Turn
What do you think? How do you apply situational leadership in your daily practice? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more suggestions? What are your success factors for the good situational leadership?
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- Hersey, P. (1985). The situational leader. Warner Books.
- Hersey, P. and Blanchard, K. H. (1977). Management of Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources. Prentice Hall.
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