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Situational approach

Situational approach
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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Situational leadership is a flexible and adaptive leadership style, emphasising the need to adapt the leadership style to suit the requirements or situations of the organisation, rather than prescribing a specific skill for a leader (Northouse 2013).
Adaptiveness is a key requirement in situational leadership, as leaders must be able to adjust their leadership style to meet and suit the changing needs of the internal and external environment.
There is no single right way to lead because the internal and external dimensions of the environment require the leader to adapt to that particular situation.
(Greenleaf 1977)
Situational leaders must have the insight to understand when to change their management style and what leadership strategy fits each new paradigm.
(Bass 1997)
This leadership approach is very good in a fast-paced business environment, where the organisation needs to respond to the external environment.

Seminal work on situational leadership

Leadership should not be viewed as a ‘one size fits all’ – it is generally not effective to apply the same approach in all situations.
Hersey and Blanchard (1969 and 1988) identified four core leadership styles:
[1] Telling: autocratic specific guidance and close supervision
Leaders make decisions and communicate them to others. They create the roles and objectives and expect others to accept them. Communication is usually one way. This style is most effective in a disaster or when repetitive results are required. In this situation, the leader tells the followers what to do and how to do it by providing guidance and close supervision.
[2] Selling: explaining and persuading
More democratic model in which the leader is aiming to ‘sell’ the idea and message to followers and to get them to buy into the process and the tasks. There is some discussion between the leader and the followers in order to gain cooperation.
[3] Participating: sharing and facilitating
Largely a democratic approach as the leader allows more leeway for the followers. The leaders leave decisions to their followers. The amount of direction from the leader remains limited and the followers have an active role in making decisions and directing the way the tasks get finished. Although they may participate in the decision-making process, the ultimate choice is left to employees.
[4] Delegating: letting others do it
A hands-off approach to leadership. Although the leaders are responsible for their teams, the followers take most of the responsibility in getting the job done. The leaders provide minimum guidance and help, unless asked to do so.
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Goleman (2000) expanded on these further and identified six leadership styles.
[1] Coaching leaders: focus is on directing and guiding followers on personal and professional development. This style works best when employees are very responsible and engaged; it also suits followers who are aware of their limitations and are open to change.
[2] Pacesetting leaders: focus is on setting high standards for themselves and also providing challenging goals for their followers. Leaders provide minimal guidance and expect followers to simply know what to do.
[3] Democratic leaders: focus is on tapping into collective wisdom by using the knowledge and experiences of followers. Followers and leaders make decisions together, thereby increasing followers’ engagement, flexibility and responsibility. However, this style can be time consuming, not suited for crisis situations or where quick decisions are needed.
[4] Affiliative leaders: focus is on the human aspects of the workplace by creating trust and emotional bonds, which promote the sense of belonging in the team as well as the organisation. Goleman (2002) argues that this approach is valuable ‘when trying to heighten team harmony, increase morale, improve communication or repair broken trust in an organisation’.
[5] Authoritative leaders: focus is on mobilising followers towards a goal by taking charge in the identification and analysis of problems, but allowing followers to choose how to get there and achieve the goals. This style is more appropriate for an organisation that is drifting from its goals, and less appropriate where followers have more expert knowledge than the leaders.
[6] Coercive leaders: leaders simply tell followers what to do and how to do it. Leaders usually demand immediate compliance from their followers. Style is useful when there is a disaster or where immediate turnaround is required.


Northouse (2013) identified the following:
  • Well known and frequently used for training leaders
  • Is a simple and practical approach as it affords the leader the ability to evaluate situations and apply the correct leadership style in order to achieve effectiveness
  • It is an intuitively appealing approach as it is easy to understand and apply across a variety of settings and it supports change management


Northouse (2013) identified the following:
  • Limited research findings to support these situational assumptions and propositions
  • Model does not address how demographic and cultural characteristics affect an individual’s preferences for leadership
  • Does not provide guidance on how leaders can use this model in group settings


Bass, B. M. (1997) ‘Does the Transactional-Transformational Leadership Paradigm Transcend Organizational and National boundaries?’ American Psychologist 52, 130-139
Hersey, P. and Blanchard, K. (1969) ‘Lifecycle Theory of Leadership’. Training and Development Journal (23), 26-34
Hersey, P. and Blanchard, K. (1988) Management of Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall International
Goleman, D. (2000) ’Leadership That Gets Results’. Harvard Business Review March-April, 78-90
Greenleaf, R. (1977) Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press
Northouse, P. (2013) Leadership: Approach and Practice. 6th edn. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publishing
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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