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Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory

Technical Details

Name(s): Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory
Author: Paul Hersey, professor and author of the book Situational Leader, and Ken Blanchard, leadership guru and author of The One Minute Manager
Classification: Contingency Theories
Year: 1970s and early 1980s


  • The simplicity of the theory makes it easy to apply.
  • The theory has simple scales that a leader can use to give a "thumb in the wind" assessment of what leadership style to use.
  • Maturity and competence of the group are often overlooked factors in good leadership and it helps to focus on these.


  • The theory may not be applicable to managers as administrators or those with limited power but in structurally in a leadership position.
  • There are situations in which the theory may be less applicable such as those involving time constraints and task complexity.
  • Testing of the theory doesn't seem to bear out the predictions [1].


Situational Leadership Theory is really the short form for "Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory" and draws major views from contingency thinking. As the name implies, leadership depends upon each individual situation, and no single leadership style can be considered the best. For Hershey and Blanchard, tasks are different and each type of task requires a different leadership style. A good leader will be able to adapt her or his leadership to the goals or objectives to be accomplished. Goal setting, capacity to assume responsibility, education, and experience are main factors that make a leader successful. Not only is the leadership style important for a successful leader-led situation but the ability or maturity of those being led is a critical factor, as well. Leadership techniques fall out of the leader pairing her or his leadership style to the maturity level of the group.


The Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory has two pillars: leadership style and the maturity level of those being led. To Hersey and Blanchard, there leadership styles stem from four basic behaviors, designated with a letter-number combination:

  • S-1 Telling
  • S-2 Selling
  • S-3 Participating
  • S-4 Delegating.

The leadership style, itself, manifests itself as behavior related to the task and behavior as to relationship with the group. "Telling" behavior simply is a unidirectional flow of information from the leader to the group. Do this task in this manner because of [whatever] at this location, and get it finished by [whenever]. Transactional leadership techniques operate here. In the "selling" behavior, the leader attempts to convince the group of that the leader should lead by providing social and emotional support to the individual being convinced. There is two-way communication, but it is clear that the leader is leading. With "participating" behavior, the leader shares decision making with the group, making the system more democratic. There is less of an emphasis on accomplishing an objective than building human relations. The fourth type of behavior in leadership style, "delegating" is reflected by parceling out tasks to group members. The leader still is in charge but there is more of an emphasis on monitoring the ones delegated with the tasks.

Four maturity levels of the group are posited by Hersey and Blanchard with letter designations:

  • M-1: basic incompetence or unwillingness in doing the task
  • M-2: inability to do the task but willing to do so
  • M-3: competent to do the task but do not think they can
  • M-4: the group is ready, willing, and able to do the task.

Each type of task may involve a different maturity level, so a person with an overall maturity level of M-3 might be only an M-1 with respect to specific work.

According to Hersey, ability level and willingness to do work can be cultivated by a good leader by raising the level of expectations. Blanchard overlays four permutations of competency-commitment, again, with a letter designation:

  • D1 - Low competence and low commitment
  • D2 - Low competence and high commitment
  • D3 - High competence and low/variable commitment
  • D4 - High competence and high commitment [2]


Can one apply the Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory to both leaders and managers? If managers are seen merely as those executing a leader's directives and with little authority (an administrator), perhaps not. On the other hand, the theory may be relevant. Each case needs to be evaluated on its own merits and people need to be aware of the limitations.

If the theory is only about getting those following to do work based on competence and willingness, then, there may be some omissions, such as situations in which neither may be relevant. Wartime, emergency situations, survival-type scenarios may need a leader, and that leader may have to do more than simply look at the willingness and competence. S/he may have to make things happen, regardless of these two factors.

If the group already has an agenda, what the leader says or does may be less relevant. This is true when the leader may not have the support of the group or have deficiencies the group has identified, making the leader less powerful to effect change.

There may not be a way of assessing accurately competence or maturity of a group, especially is there is a time limitation. As an indication of this, Goodson et al state, "Unfortunately, no absolute standard of readiness or maturity exists. ... Therefore, standardization is needed in order to clarify which subordinate populations should be considered 'ready' and which should not." [3]. There always, too, is the misjudgment of the leader, especially when there is urgency or task complexity involved. Another issue is context and dynamism. Willingness to do a task may change, and an initial judgment may be erroneous later. The scales are subjective, and context free.

Future of theory

Testing of the Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory could be accomplished by quantifying the scales. In any event, in light of what has been done so far with poor test results, more work is needed to show the proof that the theory works. While the suggestion sounds futuristic, the attitudinal factors, as well as competence might be measured and validated using cognitive neuroscience techniques, as suggested in other articles on this website.

Want to expand on the discussion?

We encourage you to expand on the discussion, add to the critique or even share your vision with regards to the future applications of the theory.

Other Visitors thoughts

Click below to see contributions from other visitors to this page...

Would be great if this site listed if the materials are in the public domain or not. And if accreditation is required in using the materials.

Dr R M Banakar Professor K L E Technological University, Hubli, India 
Situational leadership theory by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard finds an interesting application in Education Research. Students are enterprising learners …

An assessment of the situational theory 
In assessing competency and commitment it is highly subjective and as such is dependent on the leader's view at that point in time. it therefore makes …

Limitation on the theory 
The Leadership Style could not be limited to two factors, like Competency and Commitment there are many other aspects to be look into.

Strategic Human Resources, and Business Partnering 
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Perhaps the first merit of this leadership style is that it addresses each team as unique and each challenge a company may have as unique and to be dealt …

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The situational leadership theory focuses more on willingness and ability. So I wish to assert here, is it qualified base on the willingness and ability …

Dharminder Mato Not rated yet
Leaders must have vision, only by having this can they inspire and motivate others. Many Managers roles face and operate at the S1 segment of the Blanchard …

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I believe that situational leadership is probably the most effective form of leadership available. No two employees are exactly alike. They don't have …

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