The Situational Leadership Theory (SLT) was developed by Paul Hershey and Ken Blanchard in the 1970’s and is still a highly utilized if not foundational leadership style. SLT describes how interactions between the manager and the employee evolve over time as the employee gains knowledge and experience in their role.
Early reviewers such as Claude Graeff (1983) criticize the theory nomenclature for the use of “mature” v. “immature” as a means of describing per performance manifestations of job-created exposure, experience, and skill (p. 285). In response, Blanchard, together with Patricia and Drea Zigarmi (2013) gave the theory a facelift, omitted the diminutive terminology, and simplified the overall description. The drill down still includes four distinctive types of leadership style—directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating—to be used in each situation based on the needs of the employee (Blanchard, Zigarmi, 2013, p. 52).
The advantage of this style is in the assumed relationship that will build between the employee and their manager as the manager fosters the growth and development of the employees on an individual basis. As an employee shows growth, the manager will be able to provide additional responsibilities and freedoms to increase their opportunities to gain knowledge and experience.
However, there are significant downfalls to this style inherently and if applied inconsistently. First, the theory leaves no instruction to allow the employee to take part in the decisions regarding their current skill levels. If the manager does not have the ability to fully assess the status of the employee in terms of need for support and direction, the employee will not receive the support or instruction necessary to complete tasks. The employee must be assessed and reassessed at the advent of each situation, and the theory does not currently state this. Further, this lack of inclusion may actually inhibit the relationship building between the manager and the employee and even create distance between them. There is also no provision for managing a group of individuals who are working on a like project. This can lead to the high performers and low performers alike finding difficulty in engaging. Lack of engagement is a key contributing factor to a decrease in work satisfaction (Blank, Weitzel, & Green, 1990, p. 593).
Finally, many tasks require direct supervision based on degree level, training, and legal mandate. Norris and Vecchio (1992) point out the risk of this leadership style, particularly when there are a variety of employees with varying levels of experience from external settings. These individuals all require tailored relationships with their leaders, and those who oversee a large number of employees run the risk of fostering only a portion of the employees while others are without proper guidance and supervision (Norris and Vecchio, 1992, p. 845).
Overall, Situational Leadership as a leadership style can be beneficial. Though there is significant doubt in the usefulness in a general setting, the benefits of the SLT are best-suited to mentoring and succession planning in a career path among peers.
Blanchard, K., Zigarmi, P., & Zigarmi, D. (2013). Leadership and the one minute manager: Increasing effectiveness through situational leadership II. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Blank, W., Weitzel, J.R., & Green, S. G. (1990). A test of the situational leadership theory.
Personnel Psychology, 43(3), 579-597.
Graeff, C. L. (1983). The situational leadership theory: A critical view. The Academy of
Management Review, 8(2), 285-291.
Thompson, G., & Vecchio, R.P. (2009). Situational leadership theory: A test of three versions. The Leadership Quarterly, 20, 837-848.