Situational Approach to Leadership

The situational approach to leadership asserts that there is no one best way to lead others and emphasizes that a leader’s style and behavior should depend on the characteristics of his or her followers. Specifically, the situational approach to leadership model provides leaders with insight regarding the most effective leadership style to demonstrate based on the readiness of their followers. This approach contends that a leader will elicit maximum performance from his or her followers when the leader’s behaviors are tailored to the followers’ ability, willingness, and level of confidence.

Known previously as the life-cycle model of leadership and situational leadership theory, the situational approach to leadership has been revised several times, and the terminology has been modified with each revision.

Research examining the behavioral approach to leadership has demonstrated that leaders engage in both directive behaviors and supportive behaviors (also recognized as task and relationship behaviors). Directive behavior refers to one-way communication that clearly explains each needed detail to the follower to ensure the completion of the task. Supportive behavior is two-way communication with an interpersonal focus that demonstrates the leaders’ desire to build and maintain relationships. The situational approach to leadership suggests that effective leaders practice both directive and supportive behaviors, yet their use depends on the developmental level of their followers (previously termed maturity).

Follower Development Level

Two follower factors make up the follower development level. The first is competence—it asks the question, “Does the follower have the skills and knowledge to successfully complete the task?” Competence refers to learned job-related abilities, knowledge, and skills gained from education or experience (earlier versions of the model referred to this as job maturity). The second determinant, commitment, asks, “Does the follower possess the motivation and self-assurance to successfully complete the task?” Commitment refers to the follower’s motivation and self-confidence (earlier versions of the model referred to this as psychological maturity).

The combinations of competence and commitment can be divided into four categories, which indicate the four levels of development (D1-D4) that followers may possess:

  • D1—Not committed and not competent; not developed or developing
  • D2—Committed but not competent; low to moderate development
  • D3—Not committed but competent; moderate to high development
  • D4—Committed and competent; developed

When the followers’ developmental level is determined, an appropriate leadership style can be identified. The four leadership styles are directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating.

Leadership Styles

Directing (Telling)

The directing leadership style (S1), previously referred to as telling, is used when followers are at the lowest developmental level (D1). The directing style of leadership involves relaying information to the follower in a very clear, specific manner. The directing style primarily consists of one-way, top-down communication. The follower’s roles and assigned tasks are explicitly and specifically stated so that the follower is clear about how, where, and when to do the tasks. In the directing style, the leader solves the problems and makes the decisions.

For example, the directing leadership style is appropriate when a new engineering graduate (follower) walks into the office on her first day. The new employee has a foundation of engineering principles from the classroom setting, but she is unaware of the practices and principles under which her new employer operates. If her boss (leader) directs her as to what to work on and when, her performance will increase because she has the requisite skills to do the tasks, but she probably does not know what needs to be done.

The directing style is also appropriate in extreme situations requiring rapid decision making and action. For example, the leader of an electrical power line maintenance crew who sees lightning nearby is likely to tell his crew to descend from the electrical poles immediately and without question.

Coaching (Selling)

The coaching leadership style (S2), previously referred to as selling, is linked with the second level of development (D2). Within this leadership style, the leader’s supportive behavior increases to a higher level, allowing two-way communication, and directive behaviors remain high. The leader still provides much direction to the follower, but the leader listens to the follower and allows the follower to grasp and understand the explanations and reasoning behind the leader’s decisions. In the coaching leadership style, final decisions are still made by the leader.


For example, a track coach (leader) might provide detailed instruction to a novice hurdle jumper (follower). The coach explains how to jump hurdles and provides encouragement to the jumper. The jumper begins running down the track and clears three out of five hurdles. The coach praises the jumper for jumping the three hurdles, and the jumper asks the coach for further guidance on how to improve (i.e., clear all five hurdles). The jumper is developing both the competence and commitment to jump and improve her abilities. Her performance will increase as the coach continues to encourage and support her efforts while providing guidance and direction on how to perform the task more effectively.

Supporting (Participating)

The supporting leadership style (S3), previously referred to as participating, is practiced at the third level of development (D3). The leadership style is low on directive behaviors, but supportive behaviors remain high. At this stage, the leader and follower engage in two-way communication and joint decision making. The leader’s words and actions need to be encouraging and convey support for the follower’s decisions to help facilitate confidence and motivation in the follower.

Take, for example, a skilled and well-trained nurse (follower) with many years of experience. The nurse understands what tasks and duties need to be performed on a daily basis and stays abreast of current medicines and treatments. The nursing supervisor (leader) does not need to tell the nurse what to do in a step-by-step manner—in fact, such actions would likely be perceived negatively by the nurse. However, as the nurse completes his daily activities, he will need to inform his supervisor of the patients he has seen and their ailments. The nurse will also need the supervisor’s support and input on decisions. The nurse has the skills and training to perform the job, but at times may feel unsure of the decisions he is making to treat his patients. Therefore, the nurse’s performance will increase if the leader actively listens to the nurse while encouraging and praising the nurse’s work.


The final leadership style, delegating (S4), is used when the follower is both committed and competent (level D4). At the delegating stage, the leader removes himself or herself even further, resulting in low directive behaviors and low supportive behaviors. The follower is now at a developmental stage that allows autonomy and requires only general supervision from the leader. The leader has little need to provide support because the follower is confident and motivated to take on the responsibility of the assigned tasks. This leadership style is appropriate for peak performers.

Consider, for example, a follower who has worked in the marketing field for more than 20 years and has continually landed projects leading to substantial profits for the company. She does not need a leader who tells her what to do; she already knows the processes and required tasks. She has the skills and abilities to do the job. She possesses the willingness and confidence to take initiative. Supporting behaviors from her boss (leader) may not decrease her performance on the job, but she requires only minimal support. Her performance will increase if her boss delegates projects to her while keeping her apprised of organizational goals and the big picture. Her boss should be available for consultation and should praise and reward her successes.

Extensions and Applications of the Situational Approach to Leadership

The situational approach to leadership offers some general suggestions relating to the leader’s span of control (the number of followers the leader is responsible for supervising). Specifically, the model advises that the number of direct reports a leader can effectively lead is a function of the developmental level of the individual followers. That is, the span of control of a leader who is supervising followers at the D4 level can be larger than a leader who is managing a group of people who are all at the D1 level.

The model has been extended and applied to the leadership of work groups and teams. In this application, the readiness of the group or team is determined by the alignment of the followers toward a common goal. A group in the forming stage is at the D1 level, a group in the storming stage is at the D2 level, a group at the norming stage is at the D3 level, and a group at the performing stage is at the D4 level. The leadership styles (defining, clarifying, involving, and empowering) used in this group-level adaptation are analogous to those described previously.

Measures and Uses of Situational Approach to Leadership

The situational leadership model is a training model that is intended to enhance leader-follower communications. The training provides the leader with the information needed to adapt to the various situations that he or she and the followers may encounter. Although little is known about the validity of the situational approach to leadership model, it is frequently used in corporate America. The most current instruments used to measure competence and commitment (the manager rating scale and the staff rating scale) originated from the Center of Leadership Studies.


  1. Blanchard, K. H., Zigarmi, P., & Zigarmi, D. (1985). Leadership and the one minute manager: Increasing effectiveness through situational leadership. New York: Morrow.
  2. Graeff, C. L. (1997). Evolution of situational theory: A critical review. Leadership Quarterly, 8(2), 153-170.
  3. Hersey, P., & Blanchard, K. H. (2000). Management of organizational behavior: Utilizing human resources (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  4. Vecchin, R. P. (1987). Situational leadership theory: An examination of a perspective theory. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72(3), 444-451.

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