What is Situational Leadership? Definitions, Pros, Cons and Examples

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated August 23, 2021 | Published February 25, 2020

Updated August 23, 2021

Published February 25, 2020

There are many leadership styles that a leader can implement to be more successful in the workplace. One of these styles is situational leadership, which is when a leader adjusts their type of leadership to best suit a particular situation or task. In this article, we discuss the definition of situational leadership, how leaders can implement situational leadership and the advantages and disadvantages of this style of leadership.

Related: Top 8 Leadership Styles - Definitions & Examples

In this video, Jenn, an Indeed Career Coach, explains the top leadership styles in management and how to identify the one that's right for you and your team.

What is situational leadership?

Situational leadership is a leadership style in which a leader adapts their style of leading to suit the current work environment and/or needs of a team. This style of leadership is not dependent on the skills of a leader; rather it is based on a leader's ability to adjust to the requirements of a team or organization in order to be a better and more effective leader. This leadership style may also be referred to as "Situational Leadership Theory" or the "Situational Leadership Model" and was originated by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey during the development of the book, Management of Organizational Behavior.

According to Blanchard and Hersey, a situational leader may use one of the following leadership behavioral styles depending on the situation:

  • Telling. This style is when a team requires close supervision and constant guidance. Leaders using a telling style may make all of the decisions and then communicate these decisions to the team. The telling style is most commonly used when repetitive results are needed or when a team is at the novice level.

  • Selling. This type of leadership is typically used when a team or employee is unmotivated to perform a task or job duty.

  • Participating. The participating behavioral leadership style is most commonly used when a team is competent in particular tasks but do not have the willingness or confidence needed to complete them.

  • Delegating. The delegating leadership style is when a team is efficient and effective at their jobs and require little guidance.

No particular style is considered to be the best for a leader. Rather, a leader using a situational style of leadership will use whichever style is best suited to a situation.

Related: 15 Leadership Qualities That Make a Great Leader

What do situational leaders do?

A leader implementing a situational style of leading will evaluate an organization or team and adjust their way of leading to meet the particular needs of the team or organization. A situational leader implements adaptability and flexibility into their leadership and regularly assesses the situation to ensure they are leading in the most appropriate and successful way.

Common traits that a situational leader illustrates or is capable of illustrating in the workplace include:

  • Direction. Some teams or organizations require a high level of direction to be successful. A situational leader is effective in giving direction and providing constant supervision.

  • Flexibility. Since a situational leader is constantly adjusting their leadership style to suit the current situation, they must be flexible and able to adapt on a regular basis.

  • Encourage participation. Situational leaders will often encourage team members to become more self-reliant by promoting participation in decisions.

  • Delegation. A successful situational leader must be able to delegate tasks to those team members who are capable of working independently. This is especially true as the leader's team becomes more mature under the leader's guidance.

  • Regular coaching. Situational leaders often need to be able to coach their team to encourage growth and independence.

  • Honesty. A situational leader must be honest about a situation and adapt their leadership style to suit it rather than lead in a way that is most advantageous to the leader.

A true situational leader is able to successfully assess their team and implement various leadership styles to meet the needs of the team in each situation. These leaders offer support where needed and encourage growth and independence among their teams to promote increased productivity and success.

Related: 10 Common Leadership Styles (With Examples)

Advantages of situational leadership

Situational leadership can have many benefits for both the leader and the team or organization. A few advantages of this type of leadership include:

  • Leaders are able to use whichever leadership style they believe is best in a given situation.

  • A situational leadership style can be more comfortable for good leaders who know how to use it.

  • This type of leadership style is fairly simple, as all that is needed is the ability to assess a situation and adjust to it.

  • Situational leadership can create a more comfortable environment for employees as the leadership style implemented will typically match their needs.

  • This type of leadership accounts for the various levels of development in employees and helps to address each employee's skill level and needs.

Disadvantages of situational leadership

In addition to benefits, there are also potential pitfalls to implementing a situational leadership style within an organization. Disadvantages to consider when using this style of leadership include:

  • Situational leadership could cause confusion within an organization, as a situational leader may constantly change their approach to address each team or individual's needs.

  • SItuational leadership tends to only focus on short-term goals and as a result, may overlook long-term goals.

  • Situational leadership often does not work well when repetitive tasks need to be completed, as this type of leadership is flexible and many task-driven environments are not.

  • SItuational leadership depends on the leader's ability to judge an employee's maturity level. Some leaders are unable to do this effectively and may, therefore, provide a style of leadership that does not suit a particular employee or team.

Related: How To Become a Successful Team Leader

Examples of situational leadership

The following are real-life examples of how situational leadership may be implemented in the workplace:

Example 1

An emergency room has just received a large influx of patients that have been critically injured in a bus crash. With such a large amount of patients in the emergency room, the emergency room supervisor must implement a "telling" style of leadership to direct the emergency room workers in an efficient manner. This requires the emergency room supervisor to provide constant supervision and regular direction to all emergency room staff to ensure that all patients are seen and taken care of in a timely manner.

Example 2

A manager must oversee the completion of a project with his team. The manager's team has ample experience completing all tasks required for the project and the team has shown confidence and the ability to take responsibility for their work. Knowing this, the manager uses a "delegating" style of leadership throughout the duration of the project and delegates tasks to each team member with minimal supervision.

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