Situational Leadership Theory

The situational leadership model was developed by Dr. Paul Hersey, and Kenneth Blanchard. It’s predicated on the belief that there is no one best style of leadership – the best style of leadership will depend on the situation, which refers to the task to be performed, and the makeup of the team performing the task.

The best leaders take the time to weigh the many variables affecting their situation and then select their leadership style to best match their situation.

Most of us naturally adjust our style to suit the situation whether we realise it or not. So for example, we give a newly hired team member more slack to make mistakes than seasoned employees. And we might direct tasks more closely when the deadline is urgent and important.

The situational leadership model is a framework that helps us make this adjustment of our style in a more deliberate way. The framework helps us to diagnose the situation and then select the best leadership style for that situation.


In the model, the X-axis indicates the degree of directive behaviour that the leader exerts or the amount of direction that they give their team. The higher the direction, the less able the team is to make decisions for themselves. The Y-axis indicates the degree of supportive behaviour the leader uses or the amount of support they give their team. The higher the support, the more the leader helps their team to make decisions and perform their job or their role.

At the bottom of the diagram are D1, D2, D3 and D4. These represent how well developed, how skilled and how motivated a team or an individual is, with D1 being the lowest level of development and D four being the highest.

So the model proposes that there are four primary leadership styles.

The first is S1 or a directing style of leadership. This style of leadership is associated with autocratic leadership. A directing leader will make all the decisions without consulting subordinates. They will simply inform their team of the decision they have made, and expect their team to carry out their instructions. Feedback from the team is discouraged because the directing leader decides who, what how, why and when.

Next, we have S2 or a coaching style of leadership. With this style, the leader still defines the roles and tasks, but in contrast to directing, they’re more receptive to input and feedback from their subordinates. These leaders sell their ideas and plans to their subordinates to obtain their cooperation. This leadership style is closely related to the democratic style of leadership. Sports coaches are often associated with this style of leadership – they put players into position and then they work the group as a whole in order to obtain the best performance.

The next leadership style is supporting (S3). The supporting leader will participate in idea curation and decision making, but most of the decisions will be taken by the team as a whole. This type of leader may appear to be quiet because they lead by example and appear to be an equal team member embedded in the team rather than the ruler of the team.

The final leadership style is delegating (S4). Delegating leaders are of course responsible for their team, but they provide minimal direction and guidance. It’s a hands-off style of leadership similar to laissez-faire leadership, where the group makes almost all of the decisions. This type of leader is usually more concerned with communicating their vision of the future than directing day to day activities. They will decide what the next step should be to move towards their vision, but it’s left completely to subordinates to determine how to achieve that next step.

Alongside identifying four leadership styles, the model also identifies four levels of employee development.

The first of those is D1, which you can think of as being an enthusiastic beginner. The subordinate is low competence, but high commitment. Basically, they are inexperienced, but they’re enthusiastic. Your subordinate may show willing, but they lacked the specific skills they need or that the task requires.

D2 is the disillusioned learner. The subordinate has some competence, but low commitment. They have the skills they need, but for some reason, they are unwilling or lack the confidence to perform the task.

Next is D3, the capable but cautious performer. This subordinate has high competence, but variable commitment. They are more capable of performing the task than at D2 level but for whatever reason, they’re unwilling or lack the confidence to perform the task well consistently.

Finally, we have the D4, the self-reliant achiever. This subordinate has high competence and high commitment. They are confident in their ability to perform the task. But not only that, they’re committed and they take responsibility for the task.

It’s important to realise that the development level of your team can change over time. So your team might be D1 today, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’ll be D1 in a year from now.

Also, development levels are also task-specific. So a member of your team could have a D4 development level for a task they’ve performed multiple times, but a D1 level for a task which is new to them.

So now that you’ve determined the development level of your subordinates, you can use the following table to select the most appropriate leadership style.

So for example, if your subordinate development level is D1, you would use a directing style. If it’s d3, you would use a supporting style etc.

As an example, suppose you’ve just been appointed as a manager have a new team to work on a brand new project. In this instance, it makes sense to categorise your team’s development level as D1 because you are new to the team and the team is new to the project and the type of work the project is going to involve. This means that you would adopt a directing style initially, where you’re telling the team exactly what you want them to do. But over time, you realise that the team is very skilled, but it’s unfamiliar with this particular type of project. You assess that their development level is now D3 – they’re capable, but they’re cautious because the project is new to them. When you’ve made that assessment, you decide to switch to a supporting style of leadership. You work closely with the team almost as if you were an integral member of the team yourself, where you encourage ideas and support team members to help build their confidence.

A key point to note from this example, is that the most effective style of leadership is dependent on the situation you find yourself in at that moment in time, and of course, the situation is going to change over time. You will need to adapt your leadership style correspondingly.

The terminology used for leadership styles in the lastest model is directing coaching, supporting and delegating. In the original model, they were referred to as telling, selling, participating and delegating, respectively. However, the underlying meaning was the same.

In summary, the situational leadership model is a framework that states that the best leadership style will vary depending on your situation. The model proposes four leadership styles directing coaching, supporting and delegating, and each one is appropriate at a different stage of subordinate development.