Situational leadership - Hersey and Blanchard

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With the constant change in todays technology and evolving demands to the additional skills needed for that new technology, companies are also seeking added skills in leadership. While technical skills are core to project management, PMI’s Talent Triangle suggests that the core is a combination of technical, leadership, and strategic and business management expertise [1]. Looking at the leadership aspect of project management core skill set, leaders need to be flexible to be able keep up with the continuous change in their teams' development. The Talent Triangle defines leadership as the knowledge, skills and behaviours involved in the ability to guide, motivate and/or direct other to achieve a goal [1].

The Situational Leadership theory by Hersey and Blanchard helps project managers decide which leadership style is appropriate to their team members’ development level. It states that there is no single best leadership style, that it’s situational. In order to achieve effective leadership, leaders have to adapt their leadership style to the development level of a person or a team. Hersey and Blanchard developed a model that best describes the relation between leadership styles and development levels named The Situational Leadership Model. The model was later developed and improved with time, while still preserving the core concept of the original theory.

This article will describe the background and history of the Situational Leadership theory, the application and reflections while also stating the relation to project management and how it can be beneficial for project managers.

About Situational Leadership

The theory was developed by author Paul Hersey and leadership expert Ken Blanchard, first introduced in late 1960s as Life Cycle Theory of Leadership but renamed in the mid-1970 as Situational Leadership Model [2]. The theory was inspired by the changing leadership needed by parents as a child grows up from infancy to adulthood. An infant needs a different leadership style than as a young adult, so Hersey and Blanchard felt as the same logic held true for managing new, developing and experienced workers [2].

In 1980s Blanchard made a number of changes to the original model which is now called Situational Leadership II or SLII [3]. In 1980s Blanchard made a number of changes to the original model which is now called Situational Leadership II or SLII[3]. While still keeping the same methodology, Blanchard relabelled the leadership styles because it was simply easier for managers to remember. Style 1:Directing instead Telling, Style 2:Coaching instead of Selling, Style 3: Supporting instead of Participating and Style 4:Delegating remained the same. The dimensions of the old model was “task behavior” and “relationship behaviour”, but changed to supportive behaviour and directive behaviour to relate better to the leadership styles [3].

Big Idea

Situational Leadership proposes that there are four primary leadership styles that are suitable for four different person's directive behavior, often called the four development levels. The leadership styles are Directing, Coaching, Supporting and Delegating and the development levels are Enthusiastic Beginner, Disillusioned Learner, Capable but Cautious and Self-Reliant Achiever. Situational Leadership helps the leader answer the questions on what the right form of leadership for this person is, in a specific context. The context is the task, and a task can be defined as a project from a project management perspective.

Situational Leadership contains a flexible style, whereas the leader adapts their leadership style to situational factors in the workplace. By understanding and adapting to these situational factors, the leaders will be able to influence their surroundings and team members much more successfully than if these factors are ignored [4]. The fundamental foundation of the theory is that there is no single best style of leadership and the most effective leadership varies on the project and the employees working on the project [5]. The theory suggests that effective leadership is dependent on two behaviours: Supporting and Directing. Directing behaviours give directions, instructions and control the behaviour of team members while supporting behaviour include actions like encouraging, listening, and giving attention and feedback [6].

According to Ken Blanchards website, research shows that employees need different styles of direction and support depending on their development level of competence and commitment. However, about 54% of managers only use one leadership stile, no matter the situation [7].

"Great leaders give their people what they need, when they need it. That means having authentic conversations that empower. Caring about their growth. Being their champion. Seeing their promise." [7]

Leadership Styles

Figure 1: Situational Leadership framework (own figure based on The Situational Leadership Model II [7] )

Figure 1 shows how the different leadership styles is placed on the graph depending on its behavior.The X-axis shows the degree of Directive Behavior that the leader must exhibit with each style of leadership, while the Y-axis shows the degree of Supportive Behavior.

  • S1 Directing Originally named Telling. Managers are high on directive behaviour but low on supportive behaviour. The manager tells the person what the goal is and what a good job looks like, but he also lays out a step-by-step plan about how the project is to be completed [8].
  • S2 - Coaching Originally named Selling. Coaching combines both direction and support. The manager provides a lot of support, listens well and encourages. This type of leadership teaches the employee how to evaluate their own work [8].
  • S3 - Supporting Originally named Participating. Opposite of directing, managers are high on supportive behavior but low on directive behavior. The manager supports the employees’ efforts, listen to suggestions and builds up their confidence in their competence [8].
  • S4 - Delegating The manager turns the responsibility over to the employee. He provides low supportive and low directive behavior as the employee has gained confidence and competence in the task [8].

    Development Levels

    The development levels are the levels which a person is categorised into based upon two factors, competence and commitment. Competence is a function of demonstrated knowledge and skills that is learned through time, while commitment is a combination of confidence and motivation [9].

  • D1 - Enthusiastic Beginner An enthusiastic beginner is an employee that has low competence and high commitment. Eager to learn, curios and fairly confident that learning won’t be difficult [9].
  • D2 - Disillusioned Learner This type of an employee has low to some competence and confidence, meaning that he knows what he is supposed to be doing, but still lacks the confidence. Now the enthusiastic beginner is a disillusioned learner where he has gained more skills and knowledge about the project, but still wants to know all about the whats, hows, and whys [9].
  • D3 - Capable but Cautious The capable but cautious contributor has demonstrated some competence and experience, but lack confidence in doing that project alone [9].
  • D4 - Self-Reliant Achiever A self-reliant achiever has high competence, high confidence and need little to no direction from their manager. This best describes an employee who has a lot of experience and has been performing a job for a while [9].


    Matching Leadership Styles and Development Levels

    Figure 2: Matching Leadership Styles and Development Levels (own figure based on The Situational Leadership Model II [7]

    The Situational Leadership Model has been designed in a way so that the leader can remember easily which styles match with what level. The following table shows how the model matches different types of leadership styles with development levels and an explanation on why that is [10].

    S1 and D1 A directing style is suitable for a person with little work experience for a specific project, but you as a manager see a lot of potential in. In other words, it is suitable for inexperienced employees that the manager thinks have the potential to be self-directed.
    S2 and D2 A coaching style fits best with an individual that is inexperienced but highly motivated. Moreover, that individual needs both encouragement and direction from their leader.
    S3 and D3 A supporting style matches with an individual that already has good understanding of the project and what to do but still requires the support of his leader.
    S4 and D4 A delegating style is needed when the person are already motivated, very experienced and confident in their work. Here the leader trusts this person to leverage of his/her base of experience to complete the project.

    How to identify a suitable leadership style

    When project managers begin applying Situational Leadership, the first step is to identify the project and the person that is responsible to perform it. When that has been established, the project manager answers the following questions [11]:

  • How much project knowledge does this person have ?
  • Does this person have former experience with similar projects?
  • How crucial is this decision, task or event to the implementation of the entire project?

    Once those questions have been answered, the project manager should be able to group his team into different development levels and pick his leadership style accordingly. The leader determines a leadership style as a function of directive or supporting behaviour. When the manager has acknowledged the development level of an employee, he has to be mindful of the fact that the persons experience and knowledge will evolve with time. Therefore, the manager has to be flexible and observant for his team’s development. From Blanchards book about the One-Minute Manager [10], he suggests that when diagnosing and matching styles with development levels, one should consider the following agreement statements:

  • D1 matched with S1: “Since you haven’t done this before, would it be helpful if I provided you with some direction, resources, and information?”
  • D2 matched with S2: “Since you’re still learning, and may be discouraged, would it be helpful if I continued to provide you with some direction? And I’d also like to hear your ideas.”
  • D3 matched with S3: “Since you know how to do this, what you need me to do is listen, rather than give advice”
  • D4 matched with S4: “I know you’re taking the lead, but I’m here, when and if you need me"

    Once the leader has figured out where the employee stands, he can start to think about how to develop that person from being an enthusiastic beginner to a self-reliant achiever.

    Why Situational Leadership is important in project management

    The project mangers’ job is to lead their team in the most optimal and effective way as possible. According to the PMI standards, the definition of a project manager is the person assigned by the performing organization to lead the team that is responsible for achieving the project objectives [12]. It also states that communication competence is a combination of communication skills that contemplates factors such as clarity of purpose in key messages, effective relationships and information sharing, and leadership behaviours. Therefore, project managers need to lead people correctly to get things done.

    Effective leadership is essential to create and sustain a high-performing organization [11]. By implementing the model, project managers assure that their employee are getting the best possible leadership and guidance as possible throughout the project. Good leadership leads to effective and efficient project team which leads to successful projects. When a manager chooses to use Situational Leadership, he displays behaviour that over time will gain the employees’ trust and respect [11]. However, managers have to be careful when changing leadership styles when an employee is developing. If they fail to choose the right leadership, it can lead to a more negative effect. If one uses a directive style to a person that is very experienced and confident in their work, that can lead to frustration. “The lack of leadership skill will result in people getting demotivated and eventually reduce their work performance” [13]. By reduced work performance it is evident that the project is more likely to be delayed or even unsuccessful. Therefore, a successful Situational Leadership is one key factor to a successful project and satisfied team members.

    Limitations & Reflections

    As stated above, The Situational Leadership theory is an easy way to help managers find the most appropriate leadership style for their team members development level. It is considered to be fairly easy to adapt to different scenarios and situations. However, there are limitations to this model. Although the model itself may look very easy, the hardest part is to assess correctly what development level each individual belongs to. In other words, the manager has to rely on his own intuition based on his relationship and communication with the team member.

    The key factor to successfully applying the Situational Leadership Model is to clearly understand the development of your team to be able to determine the suitable leadership style. As a manager you have to possess over the right skills to adapt to different situations and be very flexible if using this model.

    When applying the model, try to balance directive and supportive behaviour. If you find yourself in doubt on whether to go for more of a supportive or directive behaviour, choose supporting. Being very directive to a person that is a self-reliant achiever can cause a more negative effect rather than being very supportive. Over-leading a person that does not need it might lead to the person feeling untrusted or even constrained. Furthermore, under-leading a person can also lead to the person feeling insecure and confused [5].

    Situational leadership is not a methodology that one applies once to their project team, it is used continuously throughout a project and other projects to come. If you as a leader do not change your leadership styles as your team evolves, you will not get the best efficiency out of them.

    Annotated Bibliography

    Zuest, Project Management Institute. Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, 2017. Project Management Institute. Is a book that contains the standard terminology and guidelines for project management. The book describes the meaning behind project management and why it is important in order to successfully solve all kinds of projects.

    Blanchard, K., Zigrami, P., & Zigrami, D. (2013). Leadership and the One Minute Manager. William Morrow & Company. Revised and updated edition written by Blanchard about the One Minute Manager - A Situational Approach to Leading Others. In this book, Blanchard teaches leaders the world-renowned method of developing self-reliance in those they manage: SLII®.


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    2. 2.0 2.1 Blanchard, K., Zigarmi, D., Nelson, R. (1993). Situational Leadership after 25 Years: A Retrospective. 1(1), 22-28.
    3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Blanchard, K., Zigrami, P., & Zigrami, D. (2013). Leadership and the One Minute Manager (pp. 43-50). William Morrow & Company.
    4. Hersey and Blanchard Situational Leadership Model EXPLAINED | B2U. (2020). Retrieved 19 February 2021, from
    5. 5.0 5.1 Situational Leadership. (2016). Retrieved 21 February 2021, from
    6. Kendra, C. (2020). The Situational Theory of Leadership. Retrieved 19 February 2021, from
    7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 SLII® - A Situational Approach to Leadership. Retrieved 19 February 2021, from
    8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Blanchard, K., Zigrami, P., & Zigrami, D. (2013). Leadership and the One Minute Manager (pp. 38-41). William Morrow & Company.
    9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Blanchard, K., Zigrami, P., & Zigrami, D. (2013). Leadership and the One Minute Manager (pp. 27-33). William Morrow & Company.
    10. 10.0 10.1 Blanchard, K., Zigrami, P., & Zigrami, D. (2013). Leadership and the One Minute Manager (pp. 43-50). William Morrow & Company.
    11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Situational Leadership. Relevant Then, Relevant Now. (2017). Retrieved 19 February 2021, from
    12. Zuest, Project Management Institute. Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, 2017. Project Management Institute.
    13. UKEssays. (November 2018). Poor Project Leadership And Lack Of Motivation Management Essay. Retrieved from
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