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The Situational Leadership Model Explained by a CEO

Updated September 30, 2022 by Carl Lindberg

During my career as a CEO, I have encountered and used plenty of leadership styles. Most modern leadership theories build on a contingency approach, i.e., switching between leadership styles depending on the situation. The Situational Leadership Model makes switching between leadership styles clearer than any other model, considering team maturity, motivation, time, and leadership behaviors.

What is the Situational Leadership Model?

The Situational Leadership Model is a contingency theory approach to leadership where a leader uses one out of four leadership styles depending on group readiness, competency, experience, and commitment. A situational leader can use telling, selling, participating, and delegating leadership styles.

What are the four leadership styles of the Situational Leadership Model?

The four leadership styles of the situational leadership model are telling, selling, participating, and delegating. Telling is low on relationship and high on task behavior; participating is the opposite. Selling is high on relationship and task behaviors, and delegating is low on both behaviors.

Keep on reading to learn more about the Situational Leadership model, its origins, pros and cons, how to use it, details on each leadership style, examples of situational leaders, and last but not least, a few comments based on my experience as a CEO. The Situational Leadership Model is included in our Leadership Origins E-book, which is a great and vast reference material to leadership theories. If you are interested in other leadership styles, visit our overview article here: Leadership Styles.

Situational Leadership Explained

The Situational Leadership Model is often thought to be the leadership model that is perfect for every situation. A Situational leader works assiduously to create meaningful connections with team members. Ultimately, the team receives leadership with the necessary leadership style to fit the organization’s current situation.

Research shows that there is a positive relationship between situational leadership and employee productivity. However, the benefits of situational leadership don’t end there. Read this article to find out how to effectively use this leadership style to create a highly motivated workforce.

In 1982, Dr. Paul Hersey and Dr. Ken Blanchard published their book “Management of Organizational Behaviour: Utilizing Human Resources”. They probably didn’t realize that this book would help them become world-renowned leadership experts. The central theme of their message was a new approach to leadership, one based on relationship-building and leadership adjustment. This new approach was dubbed the Situational Leadership Model (www.situational.com).

The simplest way to describe situational leadership in general vs. behavioral approaches (Ohio State Leadership Studies for example) to leadership is to think about the daily complexities of a corporate work environment. Managers are dealing with teams filled with people who have diverse needs, skills, and interests. Using a one-size-fits-all approach to leading such a team means that there will be performance issues, dissatisfaction, and tension. In contrast, a manager who adjusts his or her leadership style to suit each team member’s needs and the unique needs of the organization can get teams functioning optimally.  This type of manager is a situational leader, and the Situational Leadership Model is one of several situational approaches to leadership. (Fiedler’s Contingency Theory and the Six Leadership styles based on Emotional Intelligence are two other situational theories. The links lead to our in-depth articles on those theories.)

The Elements of the Situational Leadership Model

The Situational Leadership Model has the following elements or aspects:

  1. Two Leadership Behaviors: Relationship Behavior and Task Behavior
  2. Four Leadership Styles: Telling, Selling, Participating, and Delegating Leadership Styles, which consist of different doses of the two leadership behaviors
  3. Follower readiness or maturity, describing their competency, confidence, and commitment
  4. Four different situations, S1 to S4, with different characteristics and needs, that the leader need to handle appropriately

The Characteristics of the Situational Leadership Model

Situational leadership thrives on meaningful connections between followers and leaders. How a situational leader adjusts his or her leadership style depends on the follower group in which the team lies. Additionally, a leader may use strategies for the group that differ from the strategy used for each team member, especially if some team members are inexperienced.

Four characteristics of the Situational Leadership Model:

  1. The Situational Leadership Model has a contingent and flexible approach to leadership using multiple styles depending on several factors
  2. The Model takes the knowledge, maturity, and willingness of the team into account, which too few leadership models consider
  3. The Situational Leadership Model has a relatively linear approach, enabling good and thought-through development of a team
  4. The flexible system allows teams to go back in maturity if the situations or tasks change significantly, impacting competency or commitment in turn.

The Situational Leadership Model’s Follower Readiness and Maturity

Hersey and Blanchard described four different follower groups with different readiness, maturity, competence, confidence, and commitment. As far as I understand, the new Blanchard version called SLII, as in Situational Leadership II, seems to focus much more on the individual than the group, which I actually prefer. The following different readiness levels are available in the Situational Leadership Model.

  1. High Competence+ High Confidence and Commitment (Able and Willing)
  2. Low Competence + Low Confidence and Commitment (Unable and Unwilling)
  3. Low Competence + High Confidence and Commitment (Unable and Willing)
  4. High Competence + Low Confidence and Commitment (Able and Unwilling)

These four follower groups act as the leader’s guide to determine the right combination of leadership styles to use, depending on the group of followers in each situation.

The Two Leadership Behaviors of the Situational Leadership Model

The Situational Leadership Model builds on using different levels and combinations of two leadership behaviors, namely Relationship Behavior and Task Behavior. This approach to describing leadership is similar to earlier theories in this aspect, such as the Ohio State Leadership Studies and Fiedler’s Contingency Model of Leadership. (Click the links to read out in-depth articles on those topics.)

Relationship Behavior

A leader displays relationship behavior, or relationship-oriented leadership, when engaging with other people in dialogue, discussion, and listening. Relationship behavior is when a leader builds personal bonds, rapport, understanding, motivation, and inspiration in the team. Relationship behavior requires emotional intelligence, active listening, and other skills useful when interacting with other people, be it customers, suppliers, team members, colleagues, and any other stakeholders. Large levels of Relationship Behavior compare to a strong focus on Affiliative leadership, to mention another leadership style. (Join our newsletter and get a free copy of our E-book “7 Tips on How to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence” by clicking here: Emotional Intelligence E-book.)

Task Behavior

A leader displays task behavior, or task-oriented leadership, when handling more concrete and often transactional elements, i.e., more of the managerial side of leadership. Task behaviors include setting policies, rules, guidelines, reward systems, and other structures. Instructing, monitoring, providing feedback, and challenging results are examples of interpersonal task behaviors when a leader ensures task completion according to expectation. Task behavior creates clarity and makes it possible for team members to understand what they should do and when. Extreme Task Behavior leads to too strong directive/commanding leadership, or pacesetting leadership, to compare with a few other leadership styles.

Relationship behavior and task behavior of the Situational Leadership Model
Relationship behavior and task behavior of the Situational Leadership Model

The Four Leadership Styles of the Situational Leadership Model

The Situational Leadership Model revolves around four different leadership styles to be used depending on team maturity, required leadership behaviors, and team motivation. The four leadership styles of the Situational Leadership Model are:

The Telling Leadership Style

Signified by high amounts of task behavior and low amounts of relationship behavior, telling leadership is suitable for inexperienced or low-skilled teams with low motivation or willingness to perform. In other models of situational leadership, the telling leadership style is referred to as directing leadership. (Read our in-depth article on this style here: Commanding/Directive leadership style.)

The telling leadership style is when the leader tells team members what to do and when to do it. Telling leadership is intended as an early step in the development of a team, and it should be done in a guiding way so that the team members can actively learn from the leader, making telling leadership redundant in the future.

Telling leadership is the most task-focused leadership style in the Situational Leadership Model. As the team learns and grows, the leader moves on to more advanced leadership styles.
Telling leadership is similar to directive/commanding leadership regarding the detailed instructions and all decisions being taken by the leader. Telling leadership is only used in the early development of a team, and replaced by other styles as the team matures, making it very different from autocratic leadership, its cousin among behavior leadership styles. Too much of this can be detrimental for motivation, learn more here: How does Autocratic Leadership affect employee motivation?

The Selling Leadership Style

Signified by high amounts of task behavior and high amounts of relationship behavior, the selling leadership style is appropriate for teams with low skill and experience but with confidence and willingness to perform and achieve. In other situational leadership approaches, the selling leadership style is referred to as Coaching leadership. (Read our article on Coaching Leadership for inspiration.)

What is the Selling Leadership Style?

Selling Leadership is when a leader decides what, when and how to do things, but convinces and inspires the team to perform by explaining the underlying purpose. A selling leader tries to build commitment and interest and let the team members influence who should be involved in executing the decision.

The Selling leadership style, is the second phase approach in the Situational Leadership Model. Once the leader has gone through the first maturity stage with the team, where telling leadership is needed, the next step is to switch to the Selling leadership style. This style builds more engagement and continues to provide learning opportunities for the team by involving them in why decisions are made and involve them slightly more in shaping the execution of said decisions. Selling leadership is slightly more difficult to compare to other leadership styles from other theories and models. Perhaps selling leadership would correspond to a significant portion of commanding leadership with some additions of pacesetting, visionary and coaching leadership from the Goleman leadership styles.

The Participating Leadership Style

Signified by low amounts of task behavior and high amounts of relationship behavior, the participating leadership style is for skilled and experienced teams with low confidence and willingness to perform. In other approaches to situational leadership, the participating leadership style is referred to as supporting leadership or democratic leadership. (For inspiration, refer to our article on Democratic Leadership, which is also referred to as participative leadership.)

What is the Participating Leadership Style?

Participating leadership focuses more on people and alignment rather than giving detailed instructions. The team members are mature enough to execute tasks but still need the leader to drive purpose, engagement, and vision to provide alignment and context.

Participating leadership is sometimes called facilitating, or collaborative leadership, and it is the third style in the Situational Leadership model. The team has already passed through the telling and selling phases and is experienced and skilled enough to handle task execution, as long as they get the overall context and motivation from the leader. Participating leadership might seem closely related to democratic leadership, but I think coaching and visionary leadership is even more comparable. It would not be a stretch to say that participating leadership also resembles portions of transformational leadership. For tips on how to implement participating leadership, I suggest you read our article How can democratic leadership be effective?

The Delegating Leadership Style

Signified by low amounts of task behavior and low amounts of relationship behavior, the delegating leadership style is most useful for experienced and competent team members that are confident and willing to work and perform.

What is the Delegating Leadership Style?

Delegating Leadership is when a leader of a mature and experienced team focuses on building higher empowerment and autonomy within the team. The leader stands back and gets involved if the team members need it, but not for leader-initiated monitoring purposes.

The Delegating Leadership style is the most evolved style in the Situational Leadership model. It is the last phase in developing the team, and it compares well to a Transformational or Visionary leadership style where the leader can truly focus on the big items. If gone too far, a delegating leader can be seen as uncaring or absent, similar to laissez-faire leadership.

Here are the combinations of leadership styles for each follower group, along with a description of what each leadership style entails.

Situational Leadership Model: Follower and Leadership Style Chart

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In situation S1, the followers have low capability and confidence, and the leader needs to be telling them what to do. This low maturity level describes two types of employees. Firstly, young, inexperienced employees needing the telling leadership style because they are both incapable and unwilling. On the other hand, this low maturity level can also apply to existing employees unfamiliar with a specific task or project, thereby needing additional support and guidance.Hersey and Blanchard also consider the maturity level of each team member. They describe four levels of maturity (X1, X2, X3, and X4), with X1 being the lowest level and X4 being the highest level. X signifies M, R, or D, depending on the age and version of situational leadership being used. In this article, I will use S moving forward.

S2 involves confident team members lacking capability, so they need selling to make them willing to try. Employees at this maturity level can be as inexperienced as those at the S1 level, but they are willing to learn and perform. This readiness means that they benefit most from the selling leadership style.

S3 – As the team members improve their capabilities, S3 is reached, requiring participation from the leader to move the team to even higher levels. The S3 group has employees who have most of the skills to do their work well but may need a bit more guidance on the big picture to build further confidence. They’re also highly engaged and ready to get things done. The participative leadership style works best with this group.

S4 – The most mature team members, situation S4, are very capable, confident, and willing, so they need less support from the leader, who can resort to delegation. These employees are furthermore committed enough to work autonomously. The delegating leadership style works best with the S4 employee.

The Situational Leadership Model shows how the leader should move back and forth between different proportions of relationship orientation and task orientation as the team and the situation develops. The team can digress and go from S4 to S3 as well, etc., depending on the developments. One should always be careful with skipping ahead a step, such as going from situation S1 to S4 immediately, since the team’s capability, experience, and confidence need to develop through the stages of S2 and S3 before reaching enough maturity for S4.

Styles, situations, and behaviors of Situational Leadership

What are the Pros and Cons of Situational Leadership?

Pros of the Situational Leadership Model

The advantages of the Situational Leadership Model are:

1. It uses multiple leadership styles

Too often, leadership is approached from a one-size-fits-all perspective. All organizations have diverse individuals with different needs, skills, and interests. The adaptive approach of the Situational Leadership Model allows the leader to move fluidly from one leadership style to the next so that these diverse team members are met based on each team member’s maturity level.

 2. The central focus on relationships leads to a motivated workforce

A situational leader takes the time to understand each team member to use the most appropriate leadership style for each of them. Relationship building is a central theme for this leadership style, which leads to a more motivated workforce and a better work environment.

3. Problems can be quickly identified

It is important for situational leaders to develop a deep understanding of each employee’s maturity level and competencies. Building this awareness also increases the leader’s empathy and ability to identify the root causes of problems on an individual level. This insight enables quick and early assessment of problems.

Cons of Situational Leadership

The disadvantages of the Situational Leadership Model are:

1. Not all leaders can adapt and switch between styles

Many leaders lack the situational awareness required to know which leadership style to use. On top of that, many leaders have a dominant leadership style that they rarely stray far away from. This is especially true for autocratic task-oriented managers.

2. Long-term goals are not a strong priority

The Situational Leadership Model focuses on what the team needs now rather than the organization’s long-term objectives the way transformational or visionary leadership does. This short-sighted outlook can result in missed opportunities.

3. It can be difficult to pinpoint a team member’s maturity level

Many leaders lack the Emotional Intelligence required to judge the maturity of each team member appropriately. There is also a risk that a maturity situation does not fully match any of the Situational Leadership Model’s predefined maturity levels. The model assumes, for instance, that an emotionally strong employee is also adequately experienced and skilled to take greater job responsibilities. However, that may not be the case.

4. Shifting from one leadership style to the next can be confusing

Changing leadership styles can be a major adjustment for team members as well as the leader. It can cause confusion and uncertainty in what to expect from the leader. It can also lead to the team questioning the leader’s approach and negatively impact the relationships the leader has worked so hard to build.

As mentioned earlier in this article, moving from a telling leadership style directly to a delegating leadership style can result in team members being very confused. They were accustomed to running everything by the leader and are now required to do the work completely on their own. Hence, it is better to move through the sequence of situations and let the team develop and mature in the process.

Consequently, the leader has to approach a change in leadership style strategically. It’s not about getting up one day and deciding, “Hey! I need to change to delegating leadership today.” It’s a gradual process that works best when the leader effectively communicates the need for each change with the team or team member.

How Can You Be an Effective Situational Leader?

1. Know your dominant leadership style

One way to develop the required fluidity is to know yourself and any dominant leadership style. Knowing your baseline makes it easier to change between other styles and realizing when you are slipping back into that dominant style.

2. Be flexible

Change is a natural part of situational leadership in general and the Situational Leadership Model in particular. Therefore, you should be flexible enough to meet each change as it comes. Rigidity and adherence to the status quo will block or slow down development and the switch to the next phase.

3. Build trust with your team

Situational leadership will only work if your team trusts your ability to lead. The team members also need to trust that you have their best interests at heart. Trust fuels strong teams and makes situational leadership more agile and effective.

4. Prepare to coach

Maturity, competence, and organizational context determine the most suitable leadership style for each team member. Your responsibility is to apply the right strategy to develop each team member’s character, skills, and competencies. You are coaching each person towards job success.

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A CEO’s experience of the Situational Leadership Model

As a CEO, I can relate a lot to the Situational Leadership Model, although I didn’t know about this theory until a few years ago.

I recognize the phases of maturity and leadership behaviors many teams I have developed during my career, both as a leader and as a team member. Even in a skilled and experienced team, a new leader might have to use stronger task behavior initially to get things moving in the desired direction. This can lead to early results, making it even easier to “sell” things further to the team, building engagement and commitment. As cohesion and commitment builds, the entire team starts moving in the same direction, with the leader participating along the way. In the end, the team members guide themselves and each other as well as holding each other accountable, enabling the leader to take a step back and become more delegating. My practical experience makes me convinced that the Situational Leadership Model works.

The problem I have with the Situational Leadership Model is that it follows a timeline to a certain degree, and that it builds on assumptions of general team maturity, which is rarely the case. Let me expand on both concerns.

In one of my leadership roles, I headed a management team of about ten people. Half of them were very experienced and had been in the same or very similar roles for five to ten years. Furthermore, those five people had worked together in the same team for a long time and knew each other in-depth. The other five had been in the company between zero to three years, and some of them were new to the industry.

Among ten senior leaders, which they all were, you have some very confident people and some less secure people. You will also have skilled and experience people, and the ones who lack in task knowledge but are simply good at leading. You have people outspoken people that are easy to read, and you have silent people who do not disclose their opinions easily.

By the way, did I mention that we had five different nationalities on the team?

Some members were in S1, some in S2, and about five of them were in S3, of which one might be on the cusp of entering S4. We were all one management team, so I can only use the different styles to a certain degree. It would be disrespectful to be “telling” one of the VP’s and participating with another. I can’t use telling leadership with all of them since half the team would feel disrespected, mistrusted, and disengaged. I could go on for half a page but I think you get my point. Similar problems apply to the timeline as well as the maturity: how to bring a team from S3 to S4 if two out of ten members joined up last month? Do you hold back the rest of the team until these two catch-up, or?

The Situational Leadership Model will be much easier if you have a team where all the team members are rather similar, and you can develop that group through the phases. In those cases, it seems like close to a perfect model in my book. TO my understanding, although the distinction is unclear, it seems like SLii is more focused on the individuals than the team, which means it should be less problematic in my view.

You might be wondering how I work with leadership styles if not using the Situational Leadership Model? I definitely use contingency-based situational leadership, but I prefer using a model where time and sequence are less of a concern. My favorite model also brings six leadership styles rather than four to my leadership toolbox. I have used the Six Leadership styles by Daniel Goleman successfully for years, and that system served me well in the situation I described above. With the Goleman model, I used visionary leadership to sell the entire group on our future, pacesetting to create a sense of urgency, and the democratic leadership style to form decisions and engagement from the whole team. On top of this, I used affiliative leadership, coaching leadership, and directive/commanding leadership in different doses on a one-to-one basis with each team member. Perhaps needless to say, the newer members needed more coaching and directive leadership than the more experienced ones.

Examples of Situational Leaders

Jack Stahl and Dwight D. Eisenhower are examples of Situational Leaders.

Jack Stahl – Former President of Coca-Cola

Jack Stahl is best known for his situational leadership as President of Coca-Cola between 1978 and 2000. He even wrote a book on leadership entitled “Lessons on Leadership: The 7 Fundamental Management Skills for Leaders at All Levels”. In an interview with Matthew Prewitt, Stahl states that “The most common leadership deficiency is an inability or unwillingness to focus on the details needed to implement any strategic approach. The best leaders are “situational” — they can step into any circumstance and recognize whether they need to engage at the strategy level or dive into the nitty-gritty.”

General Dwight D. Eisenhower – Former U.S. President and Allied Commander WWII

General Eisenhower showed several situational leadership behaviors during world war II. Telling in terms of giving actual orders and Selling in terms of making others believe they could win the war. As a skilled diplomat, General Eisenhower used participating leadership when involving politicians and officers from several branches and nations to participate in creating and executing the military strategy. Last but not least, delegating leadership was needed when it came to trusting and empowering his commanders to act on a tactical basis.

Further Reading

Get our leadership theories e-book called Leadership Origins, which contains in-depth information on ten impactful and well-renowned leadership theories. Great reference material for students, and an awesome learning experience for managers and aspiring leaders.

Other articles here at leadershipahoy.com that might interest you are:

Leadership Styles overview

Leadership Styles by Goleman

As well as all the other articles of course, feel free to explore the site through our menu system at the top.

External sites:

Read more about Situational Leadership at www.situational.com, and about the Blanchard version called SLii at www.kenblanchard.com.


Situational Leadership is a registered trademark, refer to www.situational.com for more information.

“A Handbook of Leadership Styles”, Demirtas and Karaca, Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

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