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Becoming a Versatile Leader: Refining the Craft of Situational Management

by Julie Miles / February 14, 2024

As leaders in today’s ever-changing business landscape, the ability to adapt your management approach to meet the needs of different situations and team members is more essential than ever before. This situational style of leadership, first developed by leadership gurus Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey in the 1960s, is known as situational management.

In this blog post, we will explore what situational management is, the different types of situational leadership, traits all good situational managers should cultivate, the many benefits this flexible management approach offers, and real-world examples of situational leadership in action. 

What Is Situational Leadership?

Situational leadership refers to adapting your style of managing to the needs of the situation and your team. Rather than sticking to one rigid style of leadership, situational managers flexibly change their level of directive behavior and supportive behavior based on the task, circumstances, and developmental level of their team members.

The goal is to match team members with the right leadership style to empower them, meet them where they’re at developmentally, and bring out their very best. Mastering this versatile skillset allows you to unlock the talents and potential within your organization. When properly applied, situational leadership enhances engagement, productivity, and outcomes through targeted support of both people and processes.

The Origins of Situational Leadership Theory

The principles of situational leadership first emerged in the late 1960s within the organizational behavior field, most notably through the research and development work performed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard around leadership adaptability.

Hersey and Blanchard built their framework upon the Function Leadership Model created by Robert Tannenbaum and Warren Schmidt in 1958. This earlier model plotted the intersection between three axes – leader focus, team focus, and situational elements – advocating that managers weigh conditions and follower readiness to choose the optimal style.

Hersey and Blanchard expanded greatly upon this groundwork throughout their collaboration at the Center for Leadership Studies. In 1969, they penned “Life Cycle Theory of Leadership,” which introduced the idea that the appropriate leadership approach depends on the maturation level of followers.

A few years later, they enhanced the model by including specifics on adapting support and guidance based on the development level of team members. As followers gain skills, confidence, and commitment in a task area, leaders can pull back on directive behaviors and nurture autonomy. Their framework was termed Situational Leadership Theory (later revised to Situational Leadership Model).

This adaptive approach recognizes that diverse situations and individuals require an appropriate alignment between direction and support to optimize outcomes. As competence and willingness evolve, leaders must attune their style accordingly while keeping larger goals in sight.

Four Leadership Styles of the Situational Model

Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Model encompasses four core leadership styles, ranging from highly directive to mostly delegative in nature. The styles differ in terms of the guidance and emotional support offered to followers and are mapped across two key dimensions:

  • Task behavior – the extent to which leaders engage in one-way communication for directing individuals and teams. This includes elements like establishing expectations, setting timelines, clarifying responsibilities, and closely monitoring progression.
  • Relationship behavior – the extent to which leaders engage in two-way communication by listening, facilitating, encouraging, and emotionally supporting employees. This includes praising wins, addressing concerns, welcoming feedback, and earning buy-in through back-and-forth exchange.

By balancing and adjusting these two behaviors, leaders can match their style to the needs of a given situation. The four styles are:

Telling / Directing (S1) – High task focus, low relationship focus

This very directive style is best applied when leading new or relatively inexperienced followers. With S1, leaders define roles, give instructions, establish processes, supervise implementation, and set a clear path to goal achievement. It requires one-way communication that is largely leader-driven.

Selling / Coaching (S2) – High task focus, high relationship focus

This style still provides substantial direction, but also persuades followers by explaining rationale, soliciting feedback, and earning buy-in. With S2, leaders aim to build confidence and skill sets through two-way communication, clarifying decisions, and motivational reinforcement when progress is made.

Participating / Supporting (S3) – Low task focus, high relationship focus

With S3, leaders instead facilitate and collaborate on execution strategies while offering high support and encouragement. Now that followers have gained competence, the leader shifts to shared decision making, active listening, praising wins, and guiding through workflow hurdles via group participation.

Delegating (S4) – Low task focus, low relationship focus

In S4, leaders hand over full responsibility based on the skill, experience, and proven motivation of highly developed followers. The leader sets overall goals and parameters, then empowers the self-sufficient employee to map their own process. The S4 leader intervenes only when major redirection is required.

Determining the proper leadership style amounts to accurately assessing follower competence and commitment before selecting the approach that provides just enough guidance and support without limiting development.

Traits of Great Situational Managers

Truly great situational managers have a few traits in common that enable their flexible, team member-focused approach:

  • They are skilled at directive behaviors like establishing guidelines, setting expectations, and giving feedback. This clarity provides newer team members with guidance.
  • They are also adept at supportive behaviors like asking good questions, actively listening, facilitating critical thinking, and expressing appreciation. This support enables more experienced team members to take initiative.
  • They regularly diagnose their team member’s Performance Readiness by assessing their competence (knowledge and skills to do a task) and commitment (confidence, motivation and accountability). This diagnosis enables the manager to match team members with the leadership style that meets their needs.
  • They have strong coaching skills to reinforce good performance and develop competence. Their coaching builds confidence, ownership and commitment over time.
  • They know when to delegate responsibility and authority to capitalize on the strengths of highly competent, committed team members. This delegation signals trust in their people.
  • Above all, great situational managers stay flexible. They understand every person, project and priority shift requires recalibration of their leadership style to lead their team members to success.

The Many Benefits of Situational Management

There are so many upsides for teams led by flexible, diagnostic situational managers:

  • Situational leadership builds trust. Team members feel respected, valued and supported. Their manager is invested in their growth and meets them where they are developmentally.
  • It boosts engagement. Team members are more motivated and satisfied since leadership behaviors align with their needs. This results in higher productivity.
  • It develops talent. Managers accelerate competence and commitment through needs-based coaching and delegating opportunities. This empowers the team over time.
  • It drives better decisions. Situational managers solicit input from team members, leverage individual strengths, and weigh options thoroughly before deciding.
  • It enables agility. Since situational managers stay diagnostically in tune with their people, they can quickly reprioritize projects and shift leadership styles amidst change.

The benefits for situational managers are also plentiful. Their ability to bring out the best in each person naturally makes them more respected and effective leaders. Diagnosing and adapting to meet ever-changing needs also builds critical thinking, emotional intelligence, communication and coaching muscles – highly valued leadership skills.

Situational Leadership in Action: Real-World Examples

To better envision application nuances, let’s explore a few real-world examples of situational leadership and management in action from various sources and industries. Many highly respected leaders demonstrate the power of situational leadership in action:

  • Legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson won 11 NBA championships by meeting superstar players like Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman where they were and adjusting his coaching style to align with their personalities and developmental needs.
  • Amazon CEO Andy Jassy fosters extreme innovation at Amazon by delegating authority to teams closest to the customer. He believes in removing bureaucratic obstacles and trusts his people to make quick decisions. Yet after the recent layoffs, he demonstrated more directive leadership, owning the decision transparently in a memo to employees.
  • Jack Stahl, president of Coca-cola from 1978 to 2000, highlighted in an interview the importance of situational leaders who possess the ability to assess each circumstance and determine the appropriate level of involvement required.

    Early in his career while Stahl was preparing a prospectus for a public offering, he delegated the project without thoroughly evaluating the necessary level of oversight. Unfortunately, the project didn’t meet expectations, leading Stahl to understand the significance of knowing when to step in and take the lead.

Master Adaptability: Refining Your Approach with Leadership Development

Mastering the craft of situational leadership is mission-critical for today’s leaders. The business landscape grows more complex by the minute, and leading team members amidst constant change requires diagnosing needs and adapting your style in real-time. Take it from the situational leadership greats – from coaches to CEOs – flexing your management muscles across directing, coaching, supporting and delegating accelerates team member growth, amplifies your influence, and drives competitive advantage.

Yet so many leaders rely on one narrow leadership style, stubbornly sticking to what feels comfortable versus what will mobilize their team members to victory. Do not let this vital situational leadership capability remain an unrefined craft in your organization.


Platinum Group is a human capital management resource with solutions to help you streamline operations so you’ll have time to manage your business. No matter which division you work with: Payroll/HR or Accounting, our team is built upon a foundation of support, service, camaraderie and collaboration that we share both in-house and with our wonderful clients. For more information about Platinum Group, or to schedule a demo of isolved, please visit our website.

Tags: Employee Leadership Personal Development Asheville HCM compassionate leadership

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Julie Miles

Julie Miles

Julie’s passion is to act as a liaison between the Platinum team, their wonderful clients, and the community, striving to tell their stories and make connections.