Leadership requires a complex collection of many attributes that include follower-desired personality traits, communication skills, leadership skills, and teaching ability, to name a few.

A preferred leadership style is developed by the leader through learning and experience. And the leader’s tendency is to fit the situation to his or her particular style.

Leadership decision making is based on a continuum, with each end represented by two key sides. Boss-centered leadership is on the left and subordinate-centered leadership is on the right.

Along the continuum are behavior points that represent a mixture of these two key sides, with each behavior point representing the amount of decision-making authority possessed by the boss and the employee.

Decision Making

Further left on the continuum represents less interaction with team members on decision making and more emphasis on the boss’s needs and desires.

Subsequently, further right on the continuum allows increased employee freedom and autonomy based on their needs and interests.

Leaders must consider three factors when deciding how decision making will be handled:

  • The boss’s needs
  • The employees’ needs
  • The situation that exists

“If direction is in order, he is able to direct; if considerable participative freedom is called for, he is able to provide such freedom” (Tannenbaum & Schmidt, 1958, p. 101). Tannenbaum and Schmidt concluded that to be successful, a leader must be flexible in his or her ability to decide. This is based on the three previously mentioned factors.

Successful Leaders

Napier and Gershenfeld (1987) stated “successful leaders are those who can adapt their behavior to meet the needs of their followers and the particular situation” (p. 242).

Therefore, situational leadership explains how leaders must react and decide, based on specific circumstances, and that all leadership is situational.

Hersey and Blanchard (1969) developed a situational leadership model, which was based on Reddin’s (1967) 3-D management style theory that emphasized task, relationship, and relative effectiveness.

Clark and Clark (1994) affirmed that effective leadership behavior should always be relevant to the circumstance or situation.

Situational Leadership

situational leadership

Situational leadership theory illustrates how a leader identifies which approach to use based on specific circumstances. The model consists of a relationship-to-task ratio that increases or decreases depending upon the situation and maturity of the individual or individuals performing the task.

Hersey and Blanchard defined relationship as a leader’s understanding of social and emotional issues and the consideration of the follower through encouragement and two-way communication.

Task is defined as the leader providing one-way communication to tell employees how the work will be done, along with when, where, and who will complete the task.

There are four leadership styles based on the situation and developmental level of employees:

  • Directing
  • Coaching
  • Supporting
  • Delegating
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Situational Leaders

situational leader

As the maturity level of an employee begins to increase, the leader reduces (but does not eliminate), task level behavior. Correspondingly, the leader increases relationship behavior until a reasonable level of maturity is reached. As followers increase their maturity level, the leader should decrease both task and relationship behavior.

An effective leader must be able to diagnose the situation and adapt his or her leadership style to fit the given situation. Fernandez and Vecchio (1997) conducted a study similar to Hersey and Blanchard’s (1993) extension of situational leadership theory.

Their evidence demonstrated “supervisory monitoring and consideration may interact with job level such that monitoring has a positive impact for lower level employees, while consideration has a more positive impact for higher level employees” (p. 67).

Applying the proper combination of relationship and task, leaders are capable of developing followers into competent and motivated employees.

The Impact of Understanding That Leadership is Situational

It allows you as a leader to understand that all people are different, that all situations are different if the knowledge, skills, and abilities of people are different and that your leadership style must change to accommodate the needs of your people!  One leadership style does not work for all circumstances.

To get the most out your employees, take the time and make the effort to understand their needs and abilities. Allow them to make mistakes to learn and mature into value members of your organization.

Patience is a competency that you must gain to allow less skilled employees to mature into seasoned professionals. Building and maintaining relationships through the formative time is essential, critical, and vital.

It is all about your abilities to assess the situation and providing value and reasoning to determine the best path for you and your people.

Employee Relationships

You see, building the relationship with your employees makes the difference that will enable you to determine the situation and how to distribute tasks.  It’s all about assessing and leading with what you see and what you feel!  Because you know, all leadership is situational!

How Is Leadership Situational?

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Dr. Greg Halpern
Greg is a performance improvement consultant with the DoD. He holds a M.S. Degree in Applied Behavioral Science from Johns Hopkins, and a PhD in Organization Management with an emphasis on Leadership from Capella University.