Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory Explained

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Dr. Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard have identified four primary leadership styles that are implemented in personal and professional circumstances.

  • Telling. This type of leader tends to tell their direct reports what to do and how the task needs to be completed with specificity.
  • Selling. This leader engages in a back-and-forth interaction between the leaders in their group and the followers. The ideas are sold to the group as a way to get the entire team to “buy-in” for the process which needs to be completed.
  • Participating. This type of leader offers less direction to their direct reports, allowing the individuals on their team to take on an active problem-solving role. These leaders help the team to brainstorm ideas, make their own decisions, and oversee the process to ensure its completion.
  • Delegating. This leader takes a hands-off approach to their direct reports. Members of the team are generally asked to make a majority of the decisions and are responsible for the outcomes which occur. The role of the leader is to take tasks that are given and then distribute them to appropriate team members.

The Hersey-Blanchard situational leadership theory suggests that there is a fifth type of leader: one that can adapt their style based on the situation that they encounter. In some situations, they may need to have a telling style. In others, they may need to be a participating leader. By being adaptive, the situational leader can lead their direct reports in the most efficient manner possible because they’ve been able to identify the team’s current needs.

How Maturity Affects the Leadership Style Chosen

Hersey and Blanchard suggest with their leadership theory that individuals choose what type of leader they plan to be. One of the key identification markers which leaders use to determine the type of leader they will be is the maturity level of their direct reports.

In general terms, teams that are less mature are going to require more hands-on leadership from the person who is designated to be in charge. The situational leadership theory identifies 4 general types of maturity that are recognized.

  • Level 1. The direct reports lack the knowledge needed to complete the job. They may not have the skills which are necessary or a willingness to complete a task.
  • Level 2. A team with this maturity level is willing to complete a task, but do not have the necessary skills to get the job done.
  • Level 3. Direct reports with this maturity level have the capability and skills to complete a task, but they do not wish to take responsibility for the decisions that may need to be made.
  • Level 4: This team is highly skilled, willing to complete any task, and willing to accept the responsibility for the outcomes which are achieved.

These levels are not static. People develop new skills every day. Situational leaders can recognize this fact and adapt their leadership style to the changing maturity levels of their direct reports. A new job may require a telling style of leadership because there isn’t any knowledge or skill available to complete a task. As time passes and team members become qualified, the leader may transition to a participating style so that the team can develop their problem-solving skills next.

By being adaptable, leaders can then avoid the pitfalls which occur when someone is locked into a specific style. A team that is very mature will struggle with a leader who wants to take a telling approach because they already have developed the necessary skills to work independently. The same is true for the opposite type of team. Taking a delegating leadership approach to an unskilled team will make it difficult to complete an assigned task.

Behavior and Situational Leaders

Individuals must also be addressed by situational leaders because a team-only approach does not account for enough variables. Some team members may have high commitment levels, but low competence levels. Some people are self-reliant achievers, with a commitment to the cause and a high commitment level.

There may also be disillusioned workers on a team, who have an average level of competence, but have low levels of commitment because of setbacks that have happened to them. Some may be cautious with their commitment levels, waiting to see what leadership style is going to be employed.

The Hersey-Blanchard situational leadership theory makes it possible for today’s leaders to recognize the skills, maturity, and behaviors of their direct reports and adjust their leadership style to meet specific needs. In doing so, it becomes possible to lead any team to a successful outcome.