The Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership® Theory

Choosing the Right Leadership Style for the Right People

The Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory

What type of leadership do your people need?

© iStockphoto/oversnap

You've just finished training the newest member of your team. Now that he's ready to start working, you give him the data he needs to enter into the company's database, and you hurry off to a meeting.

When you return later that afternoon, you find that he hasn't done anything. He didn't know what to do, and he didn't have the confidence to ask for help. As a result, hours have been lost, and you have to rush to enter the data on time. Although you may want to blame the worker, the truth is that you're as much to blame as he is.

How can you avoid situations like this?

Management experts Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard argue that these things happen because leaders don't match their style of leadership to the maturity of the people they're leading. When style and maturity aren't matched, failure is the result.

In this article, we'll review the Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership® Theory, and we'll explain how it's used in different leadership situations.

Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory

The Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory was created by Dr Paul Hersey, a professor and author of "The Situational Leader," and Ken Blanchard, author of the best selling "One-Minute Manager," among others.

The theory states that instead of using just one style, successful leaders should change their leadership styles based on the maturity of the people they're leading and the details of the task. Using this theory, leaders should be able to place more or less emphasis on the task, and more or less emphasis on the relationships with the people they're leading, depending on what's needed to get the job done successfully.

Leadership Styles

According to Hersey and Blanchard, there are four main leadership styles:

  • Telling (S1) – Leaders tell their people what to do and how to do it.
  • Selling (S2) – Leaders provide information and direction, but there's more communication with followers. Leaders "sell" their message to get people on board.
  • Participating (S3) – Leaders focus more on the relationship and less on direction. The leader works with the team, and shares decision-making responsibilities.
  • Delegating (S4) – Leaders pass most of the responsibility onto the follower or group. The leaders still monitor progress, but they're less involved in decisions.

As you can see, styles S1 and S2 are focused on getting the task done. Styles S3 and S4 are more concerned with developing team members' abilities to work independently.

Maturity Levels

According to Hersey and Blanchard, knowing when to use each style is largely dependent on the maturity of the person or group you're leading. They break maturity down into four different levels:

  • M1 – People at this level of maturity are at the bottom level of the scale. They lack the knowledge, skills, or confidence to work on their own, and they often need to be pushed to take the task on.
  • M2 – at this level, followers might be willing to work on the task, but they still don't have the skills to complete it successfully.
  • M3 – Here, followers are ready and willing to help with the task. They have more skills than the M2 group, but they're still not confident in their abilities.
  • M4 – These followers are able to work on their own. They have high confidence and strong skills, and they're committed to the task.

The Hersey-Blanchard model maps each leadership style to each maturity level, as shown below.

Maturity Level Most Appropriate Leadership Style
M1: Low maturity S1: Telling/directing
M2: Medium maturity, limited skills S2: Selling/coaching
M3: Medium maturity, higher skills but lacking confidence S3: Participating/supporting
M4: High maturity S4: Delegating

To use this model, reflect on the maturity of individuals within your team. The table above shows which leadership style Hersey and Blanchard recommend for people with that level of maturity.

Leadership Style Examples

  1. You're about to leave for an extended holiday, and your tasks will be handled by an experienced colleague. He's very familiar with your responsibilities, and he's excited to do the job.

    Instead of trusting his knowledge and skills to do the work, you spend hours creating a detailed list of tasks for which he'll be responsible, and give full instructions on how to do them.

    The result? Your work gets done, but you've damaged the relationship with your colleague by your lack of trust. He was an M4 in maturity, and yet you used an S1 leadership style instead of an S4, which would have been more appropriate.

  2. You've just been put in charge of leading a new team. It's your first time working with these people. As far as you can tell, they have some of the necessary skills to reach the department's goals, but not all of them. The good news is that they're excited and willing to do the work.

    You estimate they're at an M3 maturity level, so you use the matching S3 leadership style. You coach them through the project's goals, pushing and teaching where necessary, but largely leaving them to make their own decisions. As a result, their relationship with you is strengthened, and the team is successful.

At Mind Tools, we recognize the truth within this model, however we believe that a different leadership style, "transformational leadership", is often the most effective style of leadership in business. If you'd like to learn more about different styles, including transformational leadership, see our article on Leadership Styles  .

Key Points

All teams, and all team members, aren't created equal. Hersey and Blanchard argue that leaders are more effective when they use a leadership style based on the individuals or groups they're leading.

Start by identifying whom you're leading. Are your followers knowledgeable about the task? Are they willing and excited to do the work? Rate them on the M1 - M4 maturity scale, and then use the leadership style that's appropriate for that rating.

Situational Leadership® is a registered trademark of the Center for Leadership Studies.

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Comments (13)
  • mlmanantan wrote Over a month ago
    thanks michele, appreciate it.
  • Michele wrote Over a month ago
    Hi mlmanantan,

    The following link will take you to the Permissions Help Desk. You will find the citation requirements for Mind Tools articles here.

  • mlmanantan wrote Over a month ago
    very useful. how can i cite this article?..thanks
  • Anna wrote Over a month ago
    Very-very useful article!
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Uruudoshi,
    It's really great to hear that you are already using the model, without realizing that you were actually using the model! Sounds like you are a great leader and are able to adapt your style to each individual.

    Even with already good leadership style and approach, what else might you do to improve things even more?

    Mind Tools Team
  • Uruudoshi wrote Over a month ago
    What was interesting here is that I already use this model but didn't really know it was linked to Situational Leadership styles. I'm pleased about this!!!
  • MichaelP wrote Over a month ago
    Skeltonhannah0328 good luck with your project. The average person needs to use different styles in different situations so I would focus on describing a situation and then the roles best suited to it.
  • Skeltonhannah0328 wrote Over a month ago
    I am doing a school project on how to explain the different types of leadership styles. I also have to identify how an average person would use each leadership role.
  • rtab wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Michael

    I've taken on board your suggestion and talked to the team about how they can work differently in an Agile environment. I've given them the challenge of trying to break down their work differently within a sprint. I've also taken time to spend a couple of hours going through some of the Agile practices.
    The focus at the moment is more on coaching and training and engaging the team along for the journey.
    I've also spoken individually to the technical and test lead about them taking a more leadership role within the team which they seem to embrace.
    Another challenge I have is that of 'groupthink'. Everyone agrees with everyone else and gets along. An 'us and them' attitude is quite evident. There is no dissenting voice, no debate etc. This is something I've also raised with the two leaders and have asked them to try and be the out of the box thinkers and try challenging the team. I've tried to do that and I think additional members doing it will be beneficial.
    Hi James
    The change in the role of PM within an agile team has been challenging for me which I think I am getting used to. One of the challenges I am constantly facing is the dichotomy of the ScrumMaster and Project Manager role.
    As a ScrumMaster, to get the best out of a team sometimes you have to let them fail, ensure they identify and apply the lesson. As a project manager, I cannot afford to have the team fail so at times I have moved to S1/ S2 style to help the team.
    I've also used 1:1 discussions with the team to assist with this, after the event. And try to use the retrospective to help everyone, including me, to learn and see how we could have managed those situations differently.

  • James wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Rtab

    I like Agile a lot, and I think that it’s interesting and refreshing that you’re looking at it using the prism of Hersey-Blanchard.

    It’s also worth saying that Agile is still relatively new as an approach, so please take my comments with a pinch of salt - we're all working out how to use it in practice.

    In my view, Agile is brilliant at empowering experienced developers (M3 and M4, say) to deliver great, evolving technical solutions. As ever, “with great [em]power[ment] comes great responsibility” - i.e. developers need to deliver the user stories agreed with managers by the agreed sprint endpoints, at an acceptable/high level of quality. If this happens, then S3 and S4 management is appropriate, managers can step back, and everyone is happy.

    Problems start where this doesn’t happen. If sprints are routinely over-running (a purist might argue that they shouldn’t overrun) or if deliverables don’t work properly, then a manager has to get more involved. Anything less would be negligent, and the manager would get short shrift from his/her boss if he/she didn’t sort problems out.

    As such, you’re probably right to drop back to an S2 or even S1 style, if the situation demands it.

    (A quick thought - I qualified my comment above, re sprints overrunning. Some people argue that work should be descoped early on in a sprint if it isn’t likely to deliver on time. I wonder if developers are scared of communicating issues early on? Or, if they are communicating this, is the message getting through?)

    What do others think?

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