Situational leadership is the dominant theory upon which supervisory-level leadership training worldwide today is based. Groundbreaking in its suggestion that managers should adapt their style to fit the demands of the environment, situational leadership remains the undisputed leadership training model, although research has not proven its effectiveness.
Management guru Kenneth Blanchard, author of the well-known business tome "One-Minute Manager," and then-colleague Paul Hersey, introduced situational leadership theory in the "Training and Development Journal" in 1969. Situational leadership represented a dramatic departure from the leadership theories that preceded it. Unlike earlier theories, which focused on a one-size-fits-all leadership approach, situational leadership states that the most successful leaders adapt their style to fit the needs of each person being managed.
Blanchard and Hersey’s theory introduced the then-novel idea that effective leadership is a factor of style, not inherent personality, and could therefore be learned. Over the past 25 years, a wide range of groups and organizations, including multiple branches of the U.S. military, have implemented situational leadership training.
Situational leadership supplies a model for analyzing a situation and adopting the appropriate leadership style. The theory states that the amount of direction and support managers give each employee should vary, depending upon the employee’s developmental level—competence in, and commitment to, a given task. Blanchard and Hersey’s situational leadership matrix has four leadership styles for the manager, corresponding to four developmental levels for the employee. The manager provides more support and direction at a lower developmental level, and less at higher levels.
The key advantages of situational leadership are that the model is easy to understand and use. According to the Situational Leadership Special Interest Group, when leaders effectively adapt their leadership style to their followers’ needs, “work gets done, relationships are built up, and most importantly, the follower’s developmental level will rise to D4 [the model’s highest level of competence and commitment], to everyone’s benefit.”
More than 40 years after its introduction, the effectiveness of situational leadership is not clear. In his book, "Management Powertools," Harry Onsman argues that there is actually more research to suggest its lack of effectiveness than its effectiveness. The model also has its limitations; it fails to distinguish between leadership and management style, for example. Regardless, situational leadership remains a dominant leadership theory that all leaders today should understand and apply as they see fit.