situational leadership

Situational leadership asserts that the characteristics of a successful leader will vary based on the people he or she needs to lead, as well as on the context in which the group is operating.

This theory stems from the belief that individuals respond differently to particular leadership styles. For example, one worker may respond positively to a leader who gives detailed directives, but another worker may not work well under that approach but instead responds well to a collaborative leadership style.

With this core belief that different workers, or "followers," require different leadership traits to be successful, situational leadership theory establishes the principle that leaders can and should adapt their leadership styles based on each follower's needs or abilities. As such, the theory stipulates that the most effective leaders are those who can understand each follower's requirements, how those requirements fit into the context of the worker's environment and then adjust their own leadership styles to meet the follower's needs.

Situational leadership is related to contingency theory in that both state that the effectiveness of a leader depends on matching the leader's abilities and approach to the situation; however, contingency theory stresses matching the leader (with his or her existing characteristics) to the current situation whereas situational leadership emphasizes the leader's need to adapt to his or her followers.

Situational leadership theory dates back to the mid-1960s. Paul Hersey (1931-2012), author of "The Situational Leader," and Ken Blanchard, author of "The One Minute Manager," are credited with developing this leadership model as well as advancing how to apply it in real-world leadership positions.

According to the principles of situational leadership, a leader should adapt his or her leadership style, tactics and/or approach in response to several specific criteria. Hersey and Blanchard advocate that there are four primary leadership styles (classified as telling, selling, participating and delegating), with successful leaders applying the different styles depending on the followers' knowledge and competency (labeled as maturity level).

Although situational leadership can be classified academically as part of the social sciences field, business organizations and professional coaches also teach situational leadership to managers and coaches to help them increase their effectiveness.

However, some experts advocate applying this theory more broadly to the leadership role rather to a single individual leader, suggesting that no one person can alter his or her leadership styles to adapt to every situation. As such, they advocate that organizations use this theory to choose a leader whose existing leadership style best fits the team's current needs and the context in which they work.

This was last updated in October 2015

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