Analysis of Situational Leadership Theory

The situational theory of leadership is becoming increasingly popular in the context of modern organizational leadership. This is evident from the manner in which it is surfacing in academic literature such as books, journals and research reports. A leadership style refers to the pattern of behavior; including both action and words as exhibited by a leader or as perceived by followers. Situational leadership revolves around job-related maturity. According to Mark, et al (2009) job maturity refers to an individual’s ability in performing a job and this is a key factor determining a leader’s behavior. The situational leadership model puts it that effective leadership is dependent on both the acts of management and leadership and that these enhance an organization’s match to current global trends. The model emerged from the realization and understanding that not all individuals within a group or community being led compare in terms of maturity level and that the need for a leadership style differ with situations. Thus the model is based on situational variables as it relies on day-to-day perceptions of a leader as well as the environmental observations rather than research data. Current research shows that effectiveness in the light of this model involves a leader’s assessment of the development level (maturity) of their followers as well as the situation at hand to adjust their leadership approach accordingly (Norris & Vecchio, 2000; GEN Dennis, 1999). Situational leadership entails first understanding one’s predominant leadership approach and the level of the follower’s development process. Situational leadership is particularly becoming an effective strategy among Army leaders given the current rates of technological advancement and combat techniques. Situational leadership is thus very vital in challenging the ambiguous and complex nature of the modern military environment.

Background of the Situational Leadership Model

The situational leadership theory was developed by Hersey and Blanchard in the 1960s basing on Reddin’s 3-D framework of leadership (Hersey & Blanchard, 1996). The developmental process of the model focused on three key categories: consideration; initiation of structure; and leader behavior. In situational leadership, the subordinates’ job-relevant maturity (both psychological and job maturity) is the primary situational factor determining a leader’s behavior. Maturity is regarded to be a product of the education level and/ or experience. Psychological maturity is an important aspect of job maturity and it reflects a person’s state of motivation, that is, their confidence and self-esteem levels; which are highly influenced by ethical practices in a firm. Hersey and Blanchard identified that physiological maturity is associated with an individual’s orientation towards achievement as well as the ability and willingness to assume responsibility. Hersey and Blanchard thus concluded that performance is basically a “behavioral manifestation of job relevant maturity” (Hersey & Blanchard, 1996). Proponents of this model hold the notion that each situation demands a different leadership style and thus the best course of action is dependent on the situation at hand, that is, effectiveness in leadership is dependent on the adaptability to adapt to situations.

It is also imperative to note that the leader-follower relationship determines the outcome of any particular task. Lee-Kelley (2002) points out that situational leadership is based on both versatility and effectiveness. Four leadership approaches apply under the situational leadership model and are dependent on followers’ job-related maturity. The major notion under this model is that flexibility and adaptability determine which of the diverse styles would apply in the context of varied situations, followers or tasks.

The Four Leadership Approaches/Styles Applied in Situational Leadership

S1: Directing (high task, low relationship behavior)

Leaders take the responsibility of determining the roles and tasks for their followers. They thus are involved in close supervision of the follower activities as well as taking and announcing all the decisions. In this regard, the leaders are more concerned with the challenge of meeting goals and accomplishing tasks than on building strong relationships with their subordinates (Norris & Vecchio, 2000). Communication in this style is usually one way since leadership autocratically categorizes employee’s duties.

S2: Coaching (high task, high relationship behavior)

Although the leader has the power of making decisions, he/she usually involves the suggestions of the followers while maintaining a good relationship with them. Although communication is two-way, final decisions on ideas are usually made by the leader rather than their authors (Mark, et al. 2009). Leaders are thus focused on selling their ideas to the followers to have them understand the importance of their tasks and the various organizational processes.

S3: Participative (high relationships, low task behavior)

This style is usually very motivating to subordinates as it involves a shared decision making process and a two-way communication channel (Hersey & Blanchard, 1996). Followers are usually included in all job-related duties as well as in determining how tasks and responsibilities are to be accomplished. The leader often relies on the followers’ contribution in organizing the day-to-day responsibilities such as tasks and processes allocation.

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S4: Delegating (low relationship, high task behavior)

In certain situations, leaders are compelled to entrust their followers with much of the decision making process. The leader’s task thus entails monitoring progress although he/she is not extensively involved in the process of making decisions. However, the leader is more focused on problem solving and taking decisions but grants the followers the authority to determine the final decision. Followers decide when it is appropriate to involve the leader.

There are four major follower maturity levels that determine the necessity for a leadership style (Hersey & Blanchard, 1996).

Follower Development Process/Maturity Levels

The first maturity level (M1) encompasses followers who usually have no confidence, knowledge or skills necessary for them to work independently. Such individual’s usually require supervision and direction before they can be entrusted with tasks. In such a situation, effective leadership would entail applying the directing approach of leadership (Peter, et al. 2008). The second level (M2) of maturity involves followers who generally have the will to do a task but they lack the capacity to do so independently. This means that leading such a group would necessitate that the leader employ an approach that can coach the followers at their duties. The third maturity level (M3) includes individuals who are usually highly experienced and can attend to the task in question satisfactorily. Participative leadership is best suited to lead such followers. However, these followers lack the confidence to assume sole responsibility of seeing a task to accomplishment. The fourth maturity level (M4) includes those individuals who are not only experienced but are also confident and able to take on the task (Mark, et al. 2009; Fernandez & Vecchio, 1997). They are not only willing and able but are also confident that they can successfully fulfill accomplishments independently. In the event of M4, leaders usually assume the delegating leadership style.

It is essential to note that differentiated leadership is only possible under the situational leadership approach since different followers with varying levels of needs, abilities and maturity levels are led. The situational model is based on the perception that real leadership revolves around people management in a manner that is fair for the sake of being mutually rewarding as well as providing productive objectives; which are usually free of any manipulation. According to Hersey and Blanchard, the process of controlling, influencing and motivating followers towards attainment of stated accomplishments relies on three key leadership skills: (i) prediction of future behavior; (ii) understanding the behavior of the past; and (iii) the changing, controlling as well directing behaviors (Lee-Kelley 2002). In this regard, research shows that effective situational leaders are usually engaged in a number of behavioral manifestations: relationship and task behaviors, which are important in driving creativity and innovation among followers.

Applying Situational Leadership in the Military Services


The increasingly complex military environment demands for an effective approach to leadership, one that is adaptive to the different followers’ situations. The US Army Field Manual (FM) 22-100 emphasizes on the ability of any military leader to adjust to the particular situation or individuals being led (US Army Field Manual (FM) 22-100, 1999). Use of the model is evident among successful military leaders. Military leaders such as combat leaders are usually not confined to any one leadership style in any given situation, not with the dramatically changing nature of the battle field now and in the future. It is increasingly becoming mandatory that military leaders be adaptive (flexible) enough to engage styles that will enhance the success of the soldiers. Situational leadership in military would be important especially in enabling military leaders to take advantage of techniques from the four styles of situational leadership for the sake of motivating soldiers towards accomplishing missions successfully. Ability to make use of cultural awareness, sound judgment, self control, and intelligence is the key to effective situational leadership.

As a Military Leader

According to Lau (1998), the concept of situational leadership became of particular importance in the military following the formation of the continental army. It is also based on the recent view that control, teamwork, discipline, and organization are deficient within the forces (GEN Dennis, 1999). In this regard, military psychology has been developing situational leadership frameworks for the last 100 years to promote effective military behavior based on the view that particular behavior among military individuals would inevitably facilitate better outcomes. While using this model, it is necessary to make use of the studies and facts about military figures and units encountered during my service to avoid repetition of past mistakes over an over. This way, one would be able to learn from these past histories and focus on key concerns that address soldiers simultaneously in regards to mission accomplishment tasks. This would help in focusing on the task and social aspects of duty as one adapts his/her leadership style to match followers’ needs and abilities. Studies reveal that this training has had more emphasis on the managerial training rather than the tactical approaches (COL Kent & LTC David, 2001); this would be a challenge and an opportunity to apply the various leadership approaches within the constraints of the situational model of leadership to get the best from the soldiers. Studies have shown that difficulties associated with compromises on the gratification level, solution seeking and perfectness due to autocratic rules can be effectively solved through the situational leadership approach, whereby combat leaders take advantage of the opportunity for adjusting communication flow through adapting to leadership styles that are situationally appropriate (GEN Dennis, 1999).

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Military leadership tasks revolve around being both a social specialist and a task specialist, that is, ones primary goal is to accomplish the group’s main challenge of defeating enemies in combat. Such a role requires being more informed, active and intelligent than the followers. As a social specialist, one’s challenge would encompass building and maintaining a close relationship with the group, keeping the group together, and providing morale (Peter, et al. 2008). As a military leader, being able to situationally adapt to the social needs of the followers would help in mitigating issues concerned with low morale such as desertion, crime, malingering and absenteeism. Thus, the social specialist role helps one to be able to improve a team’s cohesiveness. An ideal military, situational-based leader is one who is able to excellently and concurrently apply both the task of a specialist and an equal competency as a social leader (COL Kent & LTC David, 2001). Social situational adaptability is especially important for effective and successful leadership among leaders at the lower levels than it is for the higher levels. It is imperative that one be conversant with the dynamics of the rules in the army to achieve untried solutions and meet challenges with this model.

For effectiveness, one has to continuously look for situations in which they can apply new alternatives. More particularly lower ranks require that one be less sensitive on rank differences and have more foresight and initiative regarding what is right or who is right; this is an example of ideal situational adaptive ability in which they would be dependent on information to tackle challenges (Lau, 1998). Still on situations, using technical expertise while at the same time focusing on the group’s cohesiveness, especially because of the stressing nature of the military environment, would be the perfect thing to do. This implies that ones adaptability and flexibility has to be impressive as military work usually involves surprises which would necessitate this. Therefore, a flexible leadership model such as situational leadership is most applicable in the military situation due to the necessity to successfully handle unanticipated events.

Being an adaptive leader is paramount to conceive the importance of creating an environment for enabling followers as well as junior leaders to expand their rational risk-taking. It enables them to enhance their development, training and coaching levels (Lee-Kelley 2002; Lau, 1998). This is particularly so in the face of the increasing sophistication of the hardware, techniques and tactics applied in the military today. Situational approach in military leadership involves training the subordinate officers to tackle more complicated tasks with use of fewer resources. John Blair and James Hunt describe the various elements that influence the situational approach of leadership within the military. They sought to enhance the understanding of the major characteristics defining leadership in future battle fields as well as the extent of their influence on commanders, soldiers and the army in general (COL Kent & LTC David, 2001). James and John emphasize on the organizational and environmental factors (macrocontigency factors) and the microcontigency factors encompassing the situational factors that are particular to tasks, individuals or unit.

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Most current military services derive from the situational leadership model. Situation leadership training in the military began as early as the 1970s but only limited studies have been on the same in the military context. Recent research on the air assault battalion of US National Army Guard shows that this model works effectively within the military (Mark, et al. 2009). A military leaders’ major accomplishment under this model would be to facilitate the development of the job-related maturity of the soldiers.

According to the guidelines outlined in FM 22100, the effectiveness of a combat leader relies on the ability to demonstrate flexibility in terms of the leadership approach while leading other soldiers (Lau, 1998). This is because the military is characterized by different behaviors with some responding best to suggestions, coaxing, gentle prodding or directions. An example of one approach involves applying the S2 (coaching) style for the subordinates’ in maturity level 3 to improve their motivation, commitment, and ownership of decisions. Thus, being situational implies that one has the ability to shift from using an overly directive approach to suing one that allows the subordinates to be self sufficient; this is the basis for leadership and subordinate development in the army. FM 22100 indicates that the most important competency of any military leader is being able to identify the needs of the subordinates as well as their abilities so as to figure out the best approach to bring out their best (US Army Field Manual (FM) 22-100, 1999). Effectiveness and success is thus enhanced by the ability to use a combination of the features of all the four situational leadership styles to fit with individuals, place and task involved; since it is usually difficult to lead in battle fields that require different techniques while based on a single approach. Studies in military leadership have identified that unit outcomes are improved by integration of transactional and transformational competencies into the various situational leadership approaches (GEN Dennis, 1999).

Shortcomings of the Situational Leadership Model

Studies by the Air University Leadership and Management Program Advisory Group identified that the situational leadership model has some limitations that are worth noting (COL Kent & LTC David, 2001). While the model is effective in outlining the appropriate style of leadership based on job-maturity it fails to take care of other important considerations within the military. For instance, the model does not address the extent to which leadership is practiced, the different styles essential in the event of specific combat action, staff versus operations leadership or the various styles that may be appropriate in the vent of combined, joint, or even service leadership. This is because leaders may not be able to identify situations where the various leadership styles apply more appropriately or that they lack the capacity or expertise to employ the appropriate behaviors whenever the telling or the directing styles are most appropriate. It is difficult to assess the readiness level of the followers since this model involves a multifaceted approach (Fernandez & Vecchio, 1997).


The situational leadership theory is becoming increasingly popular in modern organizational leadership especially in the military set up. Leadership is an important aspect of combat power and thus the reason for situational model popularity. The most important task in combat situational leadership is being able to motivate the soldiers through morale factors enhanced by unit cohesion. A leader’s adaptability is the key necessity for the success of the situational leadership model. Communication is one way to improve task motivation and leadership outcome in the context of this model. Communication is also two in an effort to improve morale and participation. However, the S1 and S4 styles usually involve more situational concerns than just the subordinate’s readiness. The appropriateness of a leadership style changes with change in the leadership environment. The model emphasizes on using more than one style of leadership especially when developing followers. According to this model, there is a no best leadership style since the key determinants of leadership is the adaptation to the job maturity and the skill level of the subordinates. As proven Situational leadership is thus very vital in challenging the ambiguous and complex nature of the modern military environment.

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