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Situational Leadership Model: Strengths and Weaknesses


The situational leadership model, founded in 1982 by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, remains one of the most efficient (Anderson & Anderson, 2001, p. 153). According to it, leaders should always consider the circumstances and respond to their followers’ behavior. Compared with the great man and trait leadership theories or behavioral approaches, the SL model is more people-oriented and flexible.

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Besides, it is more useful in practice, since it has a prescriptive value while the majority of other theories are descriptive. Additionally, situational leadership turns out to be useful within the transformational type of organizational change, which is the most difficult to manage. This research paper examines the SL model, revealing its strengths and possible weaknesses, and shows how it works in practice by investigating particular case studies.


The situational leadership model is one of the most useful and widely accepted theories that can help different kinds of leaders to influence their teams more effectively. I have chosen this model since I believe that it is the most powerful one. According to it, a leader works by the light of nature and reckons with his or her team. As a result, better teamwork is provided.

To examine this topic, support my point of view, and find some counterarguments, I have used several resources from the CSU Online Library. All of them are scholarly. In this research paper, the readers can find a brief annotated bibliography of two scholarly resources I have chosen. Besides, additional info about all books and articles used in the research can be found in the reference list at the end of the paper.

Defining the Situational Leadership Model

The situational leadership (SL) model assumes that there is not any general leading behavior to use in every possible case. Therefore, a leader’s choice should always depend on the situation. The model was founded in 1982 by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard (Anderson & Anderson, 2001, p. 153).

The Structure of the Model

The SL model depends on two factors: which type of behavior a leader chooses and how the followers respond.

Types of Leadership Behavior

According to Obolensky (2010), there are four possible behavior styles for a leader to use: S1 (Telling), S2 (Selling), S3 (Consulting), and S4 (Delegating). Depending on the followers’ behavior, the situational variables, and the aim that has to be achieved, leaders should choose one tactic or another.

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  • Telling (S1, high structuring, and low developing) is the type of behavior when followers need a lot of guidance. It is characterized by low readiness and can be useful either in case of emergency (when a particular problem has to be solved urgently) or when people are incapable/unwilling to do what has to be done.
  • Selling (S2, high structuring, and high developing) implies that both “structuring behavior” and “developing behavior” are needed (Obolensky, 2010, p. 138). This type is more motivational and should be implemented when a leader has enough time to address a particular issue and “buy into what he thinks needs to be done” (Obolensky, 2010, p. 138).
  • Consulting (S3, low structuring, and high developing) requires a higher level of the followers’ readiness. Leaders consult with their followers but still make all final decisions by themselves.
  • Delegating (S4, low structuring, and low developing) should be applied when followers have achieved the highest level of readiness and are capable of making decisions independently. In such a case, a leader “simply delegates and takes no further interest or action” (Obolensky, 2010, p. 138).

The Response of the Followers

The response of the followers can be described in the terms of the developmental levels. There are four of them, and they vary from low competence and low commitment (D1) to high competence and high commitment (D4) (Farmer, 2005). Considering which of the levels their subordinates obtain, leaders choose different types of behavior.

  • Level D1 is characterized by attention, interest, and enthusiasm. However, the followers at this level have little experience and limited skills.
  • Level D2 implies the combination of some of the necessary skills and the incapability of an individual to complete difficult or new assignments without assistance.
  • Level D3 differs from D2 because of better experience and skills, but lower motivation.
  • Level D4 is the highest level of development. People who obtain it have enough abilities to deal with tasks on their own and are motivated enough to pursue the case. Farmer (2005) states that this kind of followers can even surpass their leaders (p. 486).

So, the choice of behavior scenario should, first of all, depend on the readiness of the subordinates. If the followers are at level D4, leaders can safely apply Delegating. When they lack experience and skills (D1) or need assistance (D2), Telling or Selling should be used. If there are urgent tasks to do, Telling is the best possible option. Finally, if the subordinates lack the motivation but are good enough at professional issues (D3), leaders should ask for their advice from time to time to show that they are valued and get them interested in achieving the common goal.

Analysis of Situational Leadership

Model’s Strengths and Weaknesses

Firstly, the situational leadership model is easy to both comprehend and apply in a variety of situations. Since it is not tied to any situation or a behavior scenario, the circumstances remain an independent variable, and everything depends on it. Secondly, the followers’ behavior remains an independent variable as well, and as far as the SL model considers this variable, it is people- and team-oriented. Thirdly, while many other theories are descriptive, the situational leadership approach has a prescriptive value. Having examined the structure of the model, leaders can easily understand which type of behavior should be used in a particular case.

Nevertheless, the SL model has also been criticized. Its main weaknesses are the lack of a firm theoretical basis and a few numbers of studies, which prove the model’s effectiveness. Still, these weaknesses should be considered as challenges, not problems. The situational leadership theory is still new in comparison with many others, and shortly, these challenges will be overcome.

Comparison with Other Theories

One of the first leadership theories was the great man theory. It was based on the fact that leadership qualities could be inherited. Its veracity has never been proven, and it has gradually lost its relevance. The theory that replaced this one was called the trait approach. According to it, the leadership traits were not necessarily inherited but still were given from birth. Although these two approaches do have some differences, both of them leave us with the concept of a born leader. Hence, an individual actually can not become a leader – only be born as one. Situational leadership denies it.

Besides the two theories mentioned above, behavioral approaches are also very popular. According to those, there is “one best way to lead” (Komives, Lucas, & McMahon, 2013, p. 58). However, in that case, neither the situational variables nor the people’s needs are considered. Moreover, there are no studies, which confirm that this is right. So, the SL model wins again.

The main weakness of every approach mentioned above is the presence of constant values (hereditary information, inborn qualities, and behavioral style). That is what makes all those theories ineffective. Situational Leadership has not such a drawback.

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Situational Leadership within Organizational Change

Types of Organizational Change

According to Anderson & Anderson (2010), there are three different types of organizational change; those are developmental, transitional, and transformational. Developmental change is the change “within the box” (Anderson & Anderson, 2010, p. 52). It implies the development of the current state, by improving existing skills, systems, processes, and so on. The transitional approach, instead of improving “what is”, replaces the current state with something entirely new using a particular transitional state for this purpose (Anderson & Anderson, 2010, p. 56). Finally, the transformational type of change is aimed to develop a new state, which is unknown from the beginning. It is built step by step by changing strategies and systems and analyzing mistakes on the way. Hence, a new state is constantly changing.

When and Why Can the SL Model be Useful?

It can easily be seen that the most challenging type of organizational change is the transformational one. It is even more apparent that this method is extremely hard to manage and even guide. However, in comparison with other types of organizational change, if successfully implemented, the transformational approach brings the most beneficial results. And that is exactly where the SL model will be of use. As Anderson and Anderson (2001) state, there is no best leadership style to use in the case of change, and the situational theory assumes the same. With different approaches for different situations, it helps to overcome many challenges on the way. So, the SL model can handle the most complicated type of organizational change, and that makes it impossible to replace.

The Model in Action

This part of the paper encompasses two studies, which show how the situational theory can be applied in practice.

The Situational Approach and Air Traffic Control

Arvidsson, M., Johansson, C. R., Ek, A., & Akselsson, R. (2007). Situational Leadership in Air Traffic Control. Journal of Air Transportation, 12(1), 67-85.

In this article, the authors describe the research conducted by them in two separate Swedish air traffic control centers. As far as the air traffic control environment is connected with numerous risks, safety is imperative, and any mistakes should be minimized. This article analyzes how the fore-mentioned issues can be addressed with the help of the situational leadership model and how effective it is in this matter. To estimate the efficiency of the applied model, questionnaires were used. The results showed, which of four possible leadership styles (S1-S4) were the most commonly/rarely used, how leadership style adaptability changed in Group/Individual and Success/Hardship situations, and how those results varied depending on different air traffic control centers.

The questionnaires used to evaluate the efficiency of the SL model were distributed to 635 employees, and nearly half of them (309) were returned (Arvidsson, Johansson, Ek, & Akselsson, 2007, p. 73). The questionnaires consisted of 32 items addressing different leadership challenges and problems, each of which had four possible types of behavior to choose from (Arvidsson et al., 2007, p. 73). Besides, T-tests were used to identify the differences between Group/Individual and Success/Hardship situations (Arvidsson et al., 2007, p. 73). The study showed that the most rarely used types of behavior were S1 and S4.

These results are fully justified: S1 is too radical and can hurt the motivation of the team, and S4 can be rarely used since there are not many followers who can surpass their leaders. As for the other two types, S3 was often chosen to address Success and Group situations, while S2 was popular in Hardship and Individual cases. These results could have been predicted since during the times of success or when great teamwork is provided developing is more important than structuring and vice versa.

Additionally, the results of the study revealed that the adaptability of the leadership style was higher in Success and Individual situations and lower in Hardship and Group situations. It can be explained by the fact that complex situations should be resolved with more strict and radical approaches, and an individual always requires more adaptability of a leadership behavior than a team.

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The SL model and Managing Telecommuters

Farmer, L. A. (2005). Situational leadership: a model for leading telecommuters. Journal of Nursing Management 13, 483–489.

Considering the number of employees, who telecommute and work from home in the US, as well as the growing character of that tendency, leaders should learn how to work with telecommuters and do it efficiently. Farmer states that the situational leadership model is rather useful not only for working with on-site employees but for managing telecommuters as well. To prove it, she examines the effectiveness of the situational leadership approach within a particular case study. The results have shown, that the used model meets the needs of telecommuters, increases the productivity of work and the development level of the employees.

Farmer (2005) describes how the SL model can be applied to a specific case study. Sue, who is a registered nurse and a case manager, decides to telecommute after working three months in the office. Her manager Betty is leading this change. During Sue’s work in the office, she has already learned her basic knowledge and responsibilities. She is interested in her work and full of enthusiasm but has to admit the lack of experience (D1). After several first months of telecommuting, Sue is making progress – she has gained a lot of new skills but still needs her manager’s assistance to do the complicated or new types of assignments (D2).

Several months later, she considers herself an experienced and high-qualified employee but she feels less motivated than before. She is persistently struggling with that and finally, a year after her first working day, she “feels comfortable with her ability to do the job and is ready for any tasks that her manager can assign” (Farmer, 2005, p. 485). As we can see, Sue has made significant progress and achieved the highest level of the followers’ readiness. This result is indeed remarkable since it proves that the situational leadership model is useful and efficient in practice. Moreover, this approach helps leaders to get high-qualified and experienced subordinates who can even surpass their leaders. It, in its turn, strengthens the team, makes it unique and competitive.

To conclude, the situational leadership approach is indeed one of the most efficient. This fact can be proved by the comparison with other popular leadership theories, such as the great man, trait or behavioral approaches, and by particular examples of how this theory works in practice.


Anderson, D., & Anderson, L. A. (2001). Beyond Change Management: Advanced Strategies for Today’s Transformational Leaders. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Anderson, D., & Anderson, L. A. (2010). Beyond Change Management: How to Achieve Breakthrough Results Through Conscious Change Leadership (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Arvidsson, M., Johansson, C. R., Ek, A., & Akselsson, R. (2007). Situational Leadership in Air Traffic Control. Journal of Air Transportation, 12(1), 67-85.

Farmer, L. A. (2005). Situational leadership: a model for leading telecommuters. Journal of Nursing Management 13, 483–489.

Komives, S. R., Lucas, N., & McMahon, T. R. (2013). Exploring Leadership: For College Students Who Want to Make a Difference (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Obolensky, N. (2010). Complex Adaptive Leadership: Embracing Paradox and Uncertainty. Farnham, England: Gower Publishing Limited.

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