The situational approach to leadership has, since its conception in 1969, gained momentum to becoming a standard of practice when approaching leadership amongst most companies today. In fact, according to Northouse (2016), the situational approach has been “a factor in training programs in more than 400 of the Fortune 500 companies” (p. 98). This is understandable considering the many perceived benefits to the situational approach. Providing a dynamic method to approaching leadership that is prescriptive rather than descriptive gives users a playbook to address various situations as they arise (Northouse, 2016). Teaching would-be users not only what makes a good leader but also how to be an effective leader is understandably appealing and useful. However, there is one major flaw in this approach and that is a lack of empirical data to support it.
Developed in 1969 by Hersey and Blanchard, the situational approach was based on Reddin’s 3-D management style theory of 1967 (Northouse, 2016). Since then, the situational approach has seen several revisions to include Blanchard 1988, Blanchard, Zigarmi, and Zigarmi, 1985, Blanchard, Zigarmi, and Nelson, 1993 for example and most recently, Blanchard 2007 (as cited in Thompson & Vecchio, 2009). Its premise is based off of a bi-dimensional approach, which includes directive and supportive dimensions that must be “applied appropriately in a given situation” (Northouse, 2016, p. 93). Leadership styles combined with development levels are utilized to formulate a “playbook” for implementing the situational approach. Amongst the leadership styles are four categories; high directive-low supportive, high directive-high supportive, high supportive-low directive, and lastly low supportive-low directive, also referenced as directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating respectively (Northouse, 2016). Each category blends variant degrees of direction and support relative to levels of follower development, which range from low competence-high commitment, to high competence-high commitment. Essentially, the situational approach speaks to the idea that followers will change within a “developmental continuum” of competence and commitment and prescribes an appropriate leadership style accordingly (Northouse, 2016, p. 97).
Overall, the situational approach appears to be an amazing tool for companies to utilize and implement within their leadership programs. As previously stated, even the majority of Fortune 500 companies incorporate the situational approach to leadership. Understandably, having a theory which unlike many theories spells out actions one can take dependent upon various scenarios is appealing when compared to being provided a laundry list of traits or skills recognized as being attributed to good leadership and left to change one’s abilities, behavior or personality accordingly. However, all is not necessarily as it seems. According to Northouse (2016), the situational approach doesn’t come without its flaws. Few research studies with regard to situational leadership have been conducted. There is no articulating how commitment, combined with competence, equates levels of development (used to determine corresponding leadership styles). Rationale for matching leadership styles with follower development levels is also lacking. Demographics to include gender, experience, age, and education are not addressed, and conditions between one-on-one versus one addressing a group of 20 are not individually prescribed (Northouse, 2016, p. 100-102). At first glance, the situational approach to leadership seemed to to be an all-inclusive answer to the challenges of leadership, however as we begin to look closer, we begin to see that may not necessarily be true.
Several attempts to test the situational approach empirically have been conducted, resulting in only a partial support of its validity (Northouse, 2016). Tests which have included several hundred high school teachers in 14 institutions (Vecchio, 1987), a group of nurses and their supervisors (Norris & Vecchio, 1992), University faculty and staff and their supervisors (Fernandez & Vecchio, 1997), examination of 860 military members of 86 squads (Vecchio, Bullis, & Brazil, 2006), and 357 banking employees and 80 supervisors, sampled from 10 Norwegian financial institutions to name a few (Thompson & Vecchio, 2009). More specifically, with regard to the situational approach predicting follower performance within these studies, only data that was partially valid was observed within the low and medium range of employee readiness and maturity (Thompson & Vecchio, 2009). Furthermore, according to Thompson and Vecchio (2009), within their study of the Norwegian bank employees, which examined three differing versions of the situational leadership theory to include the original theory of 1972, the revised of 2007 and an alternative statement of the theory’s “essential principle of differential follower response to autonomy afforded by the leader in conjunction with follower developmental level” (abstract section, para. 1), no clear support was ever observed. Essentially, significant data has not been observed during the testing of the situational approach to the extent of being conclusive. Some concepts of the theory have held true but not all and not in all situations (Thompson & Vecchio, 2009).
Although as stated by Northouse (2016), there are several criticisms of the situational approach to leadership, it still holds substantial recognition. Its uses seem to be applicable to a wide user base and variety of applications as it accounts for nearly any situation. Simply search situational leadership theory on Google and in .56 seconds you will have approximately 969,000 results. Situational leadership theory is often a staple of managerial courses and often included in the leadership section of management textbooks. Most Fortune 500 companies implement situational leadership and yet there still remains a lack of significant evidence supporting situational leadership theory (Thompson & Vecchio, 2009). With all of this said, it is interesting that there continues to be such recognition amongst organizations with regard to situational leadership. It’s principles seem sound and it makes sense, however why is it that research studies seem to come up short when attempting to prove its foundations? Should we be using a theory that is void of proof that it actually does what it says? Would you buy a ticket for a plane that does not fly or purchase a car that has never successfully driven just because it looks like it can? From a scientific perspective, if something is void of empirical proof, can it truly be a theory? When I began to write this blog, I started in a position of support to the situational approach to leadership. However upon closer examination, I was surprised to notice significantly more criticisms than strengths with regard to the situational leadership theory and approach to leadership. Initially, it seems to be an effective approach and in all honesty I wouldn’t say that I would shy away from its concepts completely, however at the same time, I think it noteworthy to consider the premise of most of its criticism, which generate primarily from its lack of supporting research attesting to its effectiveness. Situational approach to leadership; Fortune 500 companies use it, should you?
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Thompson, G., & Vecchio, R. P. (2009). Situational leadership theory: A test of three versions. The Leadership Quarterly, 20(5), 837-848. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/10.1016/j.leaqua.2009.06.014