Mastering Situational Leadership®: Your guide to adaptive management

Effective leaders must constantly find new ways to improve everything from team communication to decision-making. And the right leadership approach can make all the difference in meeting short-term and long-term goals.

Enter Situational Leadership®. Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey developed the theory more than 50 years ago. Their model suggests that effective leaders adapt their leadership style to match their followers' readiness, ability and willingness in a given situation.

Situational leadership may seem challenging at first, but it can be a massive step toward effective leadership that positively impacts all levels of an organization. 

Let's explore the fundamental Situational Leadership® model and the nuances to help you master this hands-on, adaptable approach.

What is Situational Leadership®?

At its core, the Situational Leadership® framework relies on the relationship between leaders and followers. Under this model, effective workplace leaders adapt their leadership style to match the situation and readiness of their team. 

Those following the model diagnose team members' readiness level on a scale of R1–R4 to accomplish a task. Leaders ensure any instruction or guidance accommodates the team’s skill level on a scale of D1–D4. We’ll go over these scales shortly. 

First, let’s look at the four core situational leadership styles to fit each situation.

Exploring the four Situational Leadership® styles

Blanchard and Hersey identified four distinct situational leadership styles. The style you choose depends on your team members’ skill levels:

Directing (S1)

This style involves the leader deciding on a course of action and telling the team how to do it. The leader supervises each step and ensures the team achieves the primary goal. 

Variants of the Situational Leadership® theory may describe this approach as telling or guiding.

Coaching (S2)

Here, the leader provides direction but focuses on buy-in by providing the context and details behind the decision. 

They step back and observe the progress, stepping in to guide where necessary. This approach is great for increasing confidence as people build and enhance their skill sets. 

Variants of the Situational Leadership® theory may describe it as selling, explaining or persuading

Supporting (S3)

This leadership style is most effective when team members have the skills for the task but need more motivation or confidence.

Supporting team members empowers them to make decisions and drive the process, with leaders only stepping in to keep the project on track. 

This more hands-off approach empowers people to begin taking ownership while providing necessary support and guidance. 

Variants of the Situational Leadership® theory may describe this approach as collaborating, sharing or facilitating.

Delegating (S4)

The final approach is the most hands-off. Here, the leader sets the vision and intended goal before delegating to team members. 

Team members can make independent decisions and suggest potential improvements. This transformational leadership approach can shift and enhance the team’s culture. 

Variants of the Situational Leadership® theory may describe this approach as empowering or monitoring.

It’s important to recognize that the Situational Leadership® approach diagnoses the skill and will for a specific task, not the person as a whole. 

Some people will need a directing (S1) approach for one task and a delegating (S4) approach for another. 

Imagine you need someone to build a complex Excel spreadsheet. You choose the most experienced team member, use a delegating style (S4) and simply tell them what you need. 

However, if you need an inexperienced team member to create a marketing video, you may use a directing style (S1) and provide precise directions. 

Being comfortable with all four styles enables leaders to adjust their style to tasks and individual skill levels.

What makes Situational Leadership® effective?

Situational leadership is highly effective because it emphasizes the importance of adapting leadership behaviors to match specific needs and situations. 

It encourages leaders to focus on the task and team members’ readiness rather than relying on assumptions. This can promote fairness and objectivity in decision-making.

At its best, this approach to leadership ensures support for every employee at the level they need. Situational leadership can also empower employees to develop their skills, ultimately enabling them to reach their full potential. 

Matching situational leadership styles to development levels 

To match your management style with the situation, you need to consider the development levels (skill or competency) of those you’re working with 

Blanchard and Hersey suggest aligning your leadership style with your team’s current development level for that task. 

The Situational Leadership® model splits development levels into four quadrants that call for specific styles:

D1: Low skill, high motivation—enthusiastic beginner

People in this quadrant need the most supportive leadership approach. They might need to become more familiar with the task or develop their skill set. 

However, they are usually highly motivated. That motivation may stem from the fact that it’s a new skill to learn or they may want to prove themselves in a new position. In these scenarios, your team will benefit from highly directive behavior.

They’re most likely to respond positively to the directing leadership style (S1). Tell them specifically what to do, provide high supervision and support them in accomplishing that goal.

D2: Low skill, low motivation—disillusioned learner

For development level two, your team has a head start. They'll likely have some of the skills needed to accomplish the task at hand, increasing your confidence in them. 

However, they're not quite ready to do it alone, and their confidence may decline if they feel overwhelmed. 

Coaching (S2) is the most effective style for this environment. Team members in this quadrant still need direction, but they can also benefit from supportive management. 

Leaders can help them transform basic task skills into a more strategic or problem-solving approach. Rather than telling them what to do, coach them to get it done.

D3: High skill, low motivation—capable but cautious contributor

Like the previous situation, this quadrant has a critical component: The ability to complete the task. 

However, the employee may be unwilling for various reasons, ranging from a lack of confidence to job dissatisfaction.

Followers who fit these criteria need a high level of support along with a strategic willingness to pull back on your hands-on leadership approach. 

Most employees seek more purpose and empowerment, making the supporting style (S3) most successful for building confidence in this group. 

D4: High skill, high motivation—self-reliant achiever

The final quadrant describes someone who’s ready and able to get the job done.`

They won't need any direction or support beyond your clear expectations for the outcome other than backing their decisions.

This is when the delegating leadership style is most effective. Once you’ve observed full readiness for the task, you can delegate full responsibility. 

When employees reach this level with one or more tasks in the scope of their work, they feel more empowered and valued. 

Still, leadership in these scenarios isn’t complete. A strategic overview can ensure the employee remains confident and happy in their role. 

Helping your team develop the skills that lead to a hands-off approach is the most effective way to fully empower them. This allows them the freedom to work and allows you to focus on the higher-level parts of leadership.

The characteristics and qualities of situational leaders

No one is equally skilled in all the above leadership styles. But leaders are most likely to meet organizational goals when they exhibit a few core qualities in their daily actions:

Emotional intelligence

Being able to adjust your behavior to the situation means reading and responding to it correctly. You need to understand your team beyond their obvious behaviors. 

Knowing whether someone is willing to participate relies on being able to read their emotions and empathize. From there, you can offer more support if they need it. 

Goal-focused

As a leader, you need to be goal-oriented and focused to define clear objectives for your team. It's your job to ensure everyone understands their responsibilities in achieving these goals. 

You can guide your team toward success by ensuring that each member understands your expectations and how their work contributes to overall objectives.

Communication abilities

How confident are you in your communication skills? 

As an effective situational leader, you must be an excellent communicator and: 

  • convey expectations clearly, 
  • provide feedback and 
  • adjust your communication style to match your team’s needs. 

Situational leaders excel in two-way communication, enabling them to perform tasks effectively.

Flexibility

Any leader looking to adapt their style to the situation needs to be flexible. 

For example, as team members become more comfortable with a complex project, an effective leader will shift from a directing approach to delegating or supporting. 

Good situational leaders understand that different situations and followers require varying approaches. They adjust their leadership styles accordingly.

Trust building

As a situational leader, prioritize building trust. Foster a supportive and collaborative environment where your team members feel valued and empowered. 

You can show trust and respect by delegating important tasks to your team and providing the resources and support they need to complete those tasks successfully. 

Coaching mindset

As a situational leader, focus on developing your team’s skills and confidence over time by providing support and guidance to help them grow. 

For instance, when assigning a new task to a team member: 

  • take the time to explain the task requirements, 
  • provide necessary resources and 
  • offer guidance throughout the process. 

Investing in your team’s development and showing a genuine interest in their growth can help them reach their full potential. This can create more valuable contributors. 

Humility

Great situational leaders dont let egos get in the way. Instead, they’re willing to step back and let others take the initiative and the limelight. That requires significant humility. It also shifts the work culture to praising employee performance rather than just the team’s leader.

You can develop each of these skills and characteristics over time. Your experience level as a leader will influence your ability to apply Situational Leadership® effectively. 

While some aspects may come naturally, others may require work. Consistently developing the key qualities of a successful situational leader can lay the foundation for long-term success in your leadership role. 

Embracing these characteristics will help you: 

  • navigate challenges, 
  • adapt to unique situations and 
  • guide your team toward achieving their full potential.

How to start practicing your Situational Leadership® skills

Every leader has their strengths and weaknesses, so it pays to practice your situational leadership skills. Improving your skills ensures you can help your team in every situation they encounter.

What you practice depends on your developmental level as a leader. Generally speaking, these steps can help you develop your situational leadership skills:

Assess your current preferred leadership style

Before learning about other styles, understand your default. How do you interact with your team members? 

Examine your strengths and weaknesses when leading others. This can help you uncover areas to build on and improve to become more flexible in your approach.

Learn to identify your team members' skills and maturity levels

If you want to adapt your style, you need to easily identify what to adapt it to. Observe your team to learn about their current skill set, emotional tendencies and attitudes toward work. 

Nurture your emotional intelligence

Effective leaders can enhance their leadership skills by developing their emotional intelligence. This allows you to recognize, understand and manage emotions. 

Staying on top of everyone’s emotions can make it easier to manage conflicts. It can also strengthen connections, foster a positive work environment and help you make better decisions for your team.

Develop your coaching abilities

No matter the quadrant, some coaching will always be beneficial as it fosters trust and empowerment on the way toward full delegation. 

Learn how to motivate your team and gently nudge them toward developing their skills. Ask thoughtful questions that invite them to think deeply and challenge assumptions.

Practice flexibility in leadership style

While a flexible leadership style can feel unnatural, it’s the only way to make Situational Leadership® work. 

Start small and experiment with adjusting your approach based on the individual or team's needs. Use what you have learned to practice switching between the styles in different scenarios or with different team members.

Seek feedback where you can

Self-evaluation is important, but your team will know your leadership best. Ask them what works about your current leadership and what you could improve. Requesting feedback after completing a project can help you adapt to certain tasks better in future. 

Take on a continuous improvement mindset

Finally, remember that any leadership behavior is ongoing, especially Situational Leadership®. 

There’s no such thing as a perfect leader. But a continuous improvement mindset is crucial to becoming a better and more trusted leader.

Here's the good news: Becoming a great situational leader is not that different from other leadership models. Improvement practices are universal. 

Ready to get started? Try our Pip Decks for Leaders to improve your skills and use our guide to become the leader your team needs.

FAQs

Who created Situational Leadership®?

Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey created the original theory in 1969. They developed the Life Cycle Theory of Leadership to include in the Management of Organizational Behavior textbook, later renaming it to Situational Leadership®. 

It builds on a tradition of more adaptive leadership approaches that began in the 1940s, which aim to take a more nuanced approach. 

In 1985, Ken Blanchard further developed the Situational Leadership® model, creating the Situational Leadership II (SLII) theory. 

The SLII model emphasizes followers' development level, which is their competence and commitment to performing a specific task. It gives leaders a practical guide for adapting their approach to meet their team members’ needs.

Who is a famous situational leader?

Basketball coach John Wooden is among the most famous situational leadership examples.

His adaptable coaching style was especially successful at the college level. He continually evolved how he led his teams depending on their personalities. 

He realized a team of freshmen required a very different approach than a more experienced team of college seniors about to graduate.

Other sports, business and military situational leadership examples include: 

  • the legendary Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson,
  • former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower,
  • former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and 
  • technological visionary Steve Jobs.

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