Hersey & Blanchard's
Situational Leadership Theory

Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard first published their situational leadership theory in 1972 and Ken Blanchard then popularised it in the "One Minute Manager" series of books.

Hersey & Blanchard suggest that leaders should match their leadership style to the development level of the person, or people, being led. In their leadership model they describe development level in terms of the follower's competence (ability) and commitment (willingness). So, situational leadership is about the extent to which followers are able and willing and the style that the leader adopts!

Hersey & Blanchard identify four development levels, D1 - D4, and suggest that leaders should match these with four corresponding styles of leadership, S1 - S4.

D1 - Low competence, High commitment
S1 Directing / Telling

This leadership style is appropriate in those situations where followers lack competence, and therefore need to be shown how to do something, but are enthusiastic and committed, and therefore are willing to accept direction. They need direction and supervision to get them started.

The effective leader in this situation responds by giving lots of direction, such as solving problems, making decisions and providing specific instructions covering the what, why and how of task completion. In this style they don't provide a lot of support or encouragement.

The style is also suited to emergency situations when the leader takes control.

As followers grow in confidence and competence, they can resent being subject to what will begin to feel like an autocratic leadership style. Leaders should then adapt their style accordingly.

D2 - Some competence, Low commitment
S2 Coaching / Selling

The coaching style is appropriate where followers have some competence but a lower level of commitment. They will need direction and supervision because they are still relatively inexperienced. But they will also need support and praise, to build their confidence, and an involvement in decision-making, to increase their commitment.

The effective leader responds by continuing to solve the problems and make the decisions, to direct and closely supervise the task accomplishment. However, they will explain decisions, solicit suggestions and supports their followers' learning and progress. They give both direction and support.

When I have introduced situational leadership in my leadership training courses, a lot of leaders have expressed a wish to adopt this style. I then go on to show that they need to be comfortable using all four styles. They have to let go of the tight control that this style still retains, otherwise their followers will never reach their full potential.

D3 - High competence, variable commitment
S3 Supporting / Encouraging

This style is most appropriate for those followers who are competent but who still lack confidence or motivation. They do not need much direction, because their skills are at a higher level, but they do need support and encouragement. This will be particularly so if their commitment is low.

Here the effective leader responds by sharing responsibility for problem resolution and decision-making with others. While it might be easier for them to make the decisions, instead they facilitate and support their followers’ efforts towards task accomplishment. They give less direction but a lot of support.

This is the point where we move away from a directive leadership style to a more facilitative leadership style.

D4 - High competence, High commitment
S4 Delegating / Empowering

This is the appropriate style for followers who have high levels of both competence and commitment. Such people are both able and willing to work by themselves with little supervision or intervention.

The wise leader will provide such followers with clear objectives and some boundaries, or limits, to their authority. But otherwise followers should be allowed to get on with it.

This helps us understand the true meaning of empowerment. To me it is very simple. It is giving followers the permission to act and make decisions aligned to goals and within clear boundaries. It is not abdicating responsibility and does not mean that the leader can go play golf!

Working with the Styles

According to situational leadership theory, there are no good and bad styles, only those that are appropriate for the given situation of task and people. One of the key characteristics of effective leadership is to assess the situation correctly, select and apply the appropriate style, and continuously review your choice.

New followers will (normally at least) start at development level D1. The leader then helps them to develop to D4, adjusting and adapting their style to help the followers to progress.

On occasions, perhaps when they are under stress, followers can move back a level. Once again, Hersey & Blanchard suggest that leaders should match their style to the development level and seek to move them forward towards D4 - at their own pace.

I recommend that you read Hersey & Blanchard's work. If you can grasp situational leadership theory, and adopt their idea of leaders being flexible and adapting their style, it can make a big difference to your leadership effectiveness.

I also suggest you complete a situational leadership self assessment to see what your preferred style is now - and then again to see how it might have changed over time!


Hersey, P., Blanchard, K.H. and Johnson, D.E. (2007) 9th Ed., "Management of Organizational Behavior: Leading Human Resources". Prentice Hall.

Blanchard, K.H. and Johnson, S. (1982), "The One Minute Manager". Berkley Books.

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