What Is The Basic Assumption Of Situational Approaches To Leadership?

Leadership is a complex process that involves influencing others to accomplish group objectives. There are many different approaches and theories of leadership that have emerged over the years. One category of leadership theories focuses on the idea that effective leadership depends on the situation. These are called situational leadership theories.

Situational leadership theories propose that leaders adapt their style to fit their followers’ development level and the situation’s specifics. The core assumptions underlying most situational leadership approaches are:

Leadership Style Should Match Followers’ Readiness

Situational leadership theories posit that leaders must assess their followers’ readiness or developmental level and adjust their leadership style accordingly. Readiness refers to the followers’ ability and willingness to accomplish a specific task. Followers fall along a continuum of readiness:

  • Low readiness: Followers lack the ability and/or confidence to complete the task. They need directive leadership.
  • Moderate readiness: Followers have some ability but still lack complete confidence. They need coaching and encouragement.
  • High readiness: Followers are able and willing to take responsibility. They need delegation leadership.

Influential leaders adapt their style to match the needs of followers at different readiness levels.

One Leadership Style Is Not Optimal For All Situations

Situational leadership challenges the notion that there is one best way to lead and influence people. The most effective leaders have diverse leadership styles to draw upon as needed. Rigidly adhering to just one style will likely be ineffective across different situations. Flexibility is key.

Leadership Is Task-Relevant

Situational approaches assume leadership is directed towards accomplishing specific tasks or objectives. Leadership effectiveness depends on assessing what style motivates followers towards task completion in a given situation. The leader’s focus is on organizing activities to reach goals.

Environmental Factors Influence Appropriate Leadership Style

Situational theories acknowledge that various environmental factors, like the organization’s structure and culture, can influence the most effective leadership styles. Leaders need to diagnose how elements of the situation impact relationship dynamics when choosing how to lead.

Leadership Effectiveness Depends On Properly Diagnosing Situations

A core premise is that diagnostic skills separate influential leaders from ineffective leaders. Successful leaders can accurately assess the readiness of their employees, gauge the complexity of tasks, and understand how elements of the environment impact relationships. This allows them to determine what leadership style has the highest probability of success.

Prominent Situational Leadership Theories

Prominent Situational Leadership Theories

Many leadership theories take a situational approach. Here are some of the most influential situational models:

Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Model

One of the most established situational leadership frameworks. It identifies four leadership styles and argues that influential leaders adapt their style based on subordinates’ maturity and the task’s specifics. The four styles are:

  • Telling/Directing – High direction, low support. For subordinates with low readiness.
  • Selling/Coaching – High direction and high support. For subordinates with some competence but low commitment.
  • Participating/Supporting – Low direction, high support. For subordinates with skills but lack the confidence to complete tasks independently.
  • Delegating – Low direction and support. For subordinates with high competence and commitment.

Fiedler’s Contingency Model

Fred Fiedler’s hugely influential approach identifies three key situational variables that impact leadership effectiveness:

  • Leader-member relations – The degree to which the leader is accepted and supported by the workgroup
  • Task structure – The degree to which job assignments are structured and unambiguous
  • Position power – Degree of authority and control the leader wields over subordinates and resources

The theory argues low situational control favours relationship-oriented leaders, while high control favours task-oriented leaders. Leaders must adapt or find contexts that suit their natural style.

House’s Path-Goal Theory

Focuses on the leader’s effect on subordinate motivation and empowerment. Identifies four leadership behaviours:

  • Directive – Clear expectations, schedules, and guidance
  • Supportive – Friendly and approachable
  • Participative – Consultative, collaborative, inclusive
  • Achievement-oriented – Encourage excellence, continuous improvement

Leaders adapt their style based on subordinate and environmental characteristics to provide a path to goal attainment.

Vroom and Yetton’s Normative Decision Model

A prescriptive situational leadership approach suggests that leaders diagnose situations based on several key variables and then use prescribed leadership styles. The variables include:

  • Quality requirement
  • Commitment requirement
  • Goal congruence
  • Leader expertise
  • Likelihood of decision acceptance

Depending on the situation, the model has a decision tree to guide leaders to autocratic, consultative, or group-based decision-making.

Adapting Leadership Style to Followers and Situations Leads to Success

Situational leadership theories share a core premise – to be effective; leaders must diagnose the demands of various situations and then adapt their style to fit the needs of their followers and the circumstances. Flexibility based on the uniqueness of different contexts is a hallmark of successful leadership. While situational approaches have limitations, their focus on contextual factors provides valuable insights for becoming a more versatile, dynamic leader.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q1: Are situational approaches to leadership applicable to all types of organizations?
A: Yes, situational approaches can be applied in various organizations, including business, education, non-profit, and emergency response sectors.

Q2: How can leaders assess the readiness level of their followers?
A: Leaders can assess readiness by considering factors such as competence, experience, motivation, and confidence through observation, feedback, and open communication.

Q3: Can leaders switch between different leadership styles within the same situation?
A: Leaders can adapt their style based on their followers’ progress and changing readiness levels. Flexibility is a key aspect of situational leadership.

Q4: Is situational leadership effective in highly structured environments?
A: Yes, situational leadership can be effective in structured environments as it allows leaders to adjust their style to meet the specific needs of their followers.

Q5: Are there any specific training programs available for situational leadership?
A: Training programs and workshops provide guidance and practical tools for leaders to develop their situational leadership skills.


Situational approaches to leadership offer a valuable perspective on effective leadership by emphasizing the importance of adapting leadership styles to match the readiness level of followers. The basic assumption of situational approaches is that no universal leadership style works in all situations. By considering the competence and commitment of followers, leaders can choose from four distinct leadership styles: directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating.

Applying situational approaches requires leaders to accurately diagnose their followers’ readiness level, be flexible, maintain effective communication, and focus on the development of their followers. While situational leadership brings numerous benefits, such as increased flexibility, improved performance, and better collaboration, it also has limitations, including complexity and the potential for errors in judgment.

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