Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard developed a leadership theory that has had a strong following among management development specialists. This model, called situational leadership theory (SLT), is a contingency theory that focuses on followers’ readiness. Before we proceed, there are two points we need to clarify: Why a leadership theory focuses on the followers and what is meant by the term readiness.

The emphasis on the followers in leadership effectiveness reflects the reality that it is the followers who accept or reject the leader. Regardless of what the leader does, the group’s effectiveness depends on the actions of the followers. This is an important dimension that has been overlooked or underemphasized in most leadership theories. And readiness, as defined by Hersey and Blanchard refers to the extent to which people have the ability and willingness to accomplish a specific task.

SLT uses the same two leadership dimensions that Fiedler identified: task and relationship behaviors. However, Hersey and Blanchard go a step further by considering each as either high or low and then combining them into four specific leadership styles described as follows:

  • Telling (high task–low relationship): The leader defines roles and tells people what, how, when, and where to do various tasks.
  • Selling (high task–high relationship): The leader provides both directive and supportive behavior.
  • Participating (low task–high relationship): The leader and followers share in decision making; the main role of the leader is facilitating and communicating.
  • Delegating (low task–low relationship): The leader provides little direction or support. The final component in the model is the four stages of follower readiness:
  • R1: People are both unable and unwilling to take responsibility for doing something. Followers aren’t competent or confident.
  • R2: People are unable but willing to do the necessary job tasks. Followers are motivated but lack the appropriate skills.
  • R3: People are able but unwilling to do what the leader wants. Followers are competent, but don’t want to do something.
  • R4: People are both able and willing to do what is asked of them.

SLT essentially views the leader-follower relationship as like that of a parent and a child. Just as a parent needs to relinquish control when a child becomes more mature and responsible, so, too, should leaders. As followers reach higher levels of readiness, the leader responds not only by decreasing control over their activities but also decreasing relationship behaviors. The SLT says if followers are at R1 (unable and unwilling to do a task), the leader needs to use the telling style and give clear and specific directions;

if followers are at R2 (unable and willing), the leader needs to use the selling style and display high task orientation to compensate for the followers’ lack of ability and high relationship orientation to get followers to “buy into” the leader’s desires; if followers are at R3 (able and unwilling), the leader needs to use the participating style to gain their support; and if employees are at R4 (both able and willing), the leader doesn’t need to do much and should use the delegating style.

SLT has intuitive appeal. It acknowledges the importance of followers and builds on the logic that leaders can compensate for ability and motivational limitations in their followers. However, research efforts to test and support the theory generally have been disappointing. Possible explanations include internal inconsistencies in the model as well as problems with research methodology. Despite its appeal and wide popularity, we have to be cautious about any enthusiastic endorsement of SLT. At LSBF, get global education experiences regarding leadership and various other studies.