Research leadership styles

This section introduces one distinctive theory of leadership which provides a range of styles to use in different situations.

Situational leadership

Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard developed the theory of situational leadership in the book Management of Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources (originally 1972 but now in its 10th edition). the theory proposes that a manager's leadership style should be flexible and adapted to the situation, the task at hand and the capabilities of the individuals involved. Accordingly, a leader may adopt one of four different styles:

Directing style

When team members lack the necessary abilities but are enthusiastic and committed to the project: the leader provides clear directions and close supervision; key decisions, including how the task will be carried out; remain with the leader; communication is one-way; the focus of the leader is on the task rather than the relationship between them and staff member. The leader

  • directs how the task or tasks are to be done
  • controls information
  • establishes and uses channels of communication
  • allocates roles and responsibilities
  • supervises all aspects of team activity and interactivity.

Coaching style

When team members still lack some of  the necessary abilities, and as a result motivation may be diminishing. The  leader still determines the tasks but may need to ‘sell' their favoured approach rather than direct; the  leader listens and advises to help the staff member gain the necessary skills; communication is two-way; the focus of the leader is equally on the task and the relationship. The leader

  • explains decisions
  • listens and provides advice and help with developing skills
  • offers feedback to boost performance and self-esteem
  • closely monitors performance
  • begins to solicit team members' ideas and suggestions.

Supporting style

When team members have the necessary abilities but lack confidence or commitment. The leader asks for the advice of the staff member on how to approach the task, may facilitate the decision-making process but the final decision is taken by the team member; communication is directed towards listening and encouragement; the focus is more on the relationship between theleader and staff member than on the task itself. The leader

  • involves team members in problem-solving
  • re-allocates roles and responsibilities where evidence supports change
  • shares responsibility for decision-making
  • supports team to take decisions
  • provides positive feedback to improve performance.

Delegating style

When team  members are fully competent and committed to the project; they are able and willing to work independently. Supervision is very light touch; the leader can leave the team member to take day-to-day decisions; communication comes largely from the team member when they require input from the leader; with confidence and trust established, the team member feels  fully empowered in their role. The leader

  • provides clear objectives and  boundaries to  team members' authority
  • steps away from the team
  • advises when relevant and appropriate
  • devolves team management to the team itself.

The key point

THe key point of this theory is that there is no one right way to be a leader: none of the styles outlined above is inherently better than any other.  You may well find drawn to or more comfortable with a particular style; that would be quite natural. However, to be a really effective leader you should aim to develop all these styles, so you can provide the most appropriate leadership at the different stages in your project, and in response to different individual needs.

Leadership behaviours

Different leadership styles are reflected in a leader's behaviour - different styles tend to produce different types of behaviours. Authoritative behaviour tends to be associated with both the Authoritative and Consultative leadership styles, most strongly with an Authoritative style. Supportive behaviours are associated with the Supportive and Delegative styles - most strongly with a Supportive style of leadership.

Underpinning these two different sets of behaviours are shifts in the leader's focus from the tasks to the people themselves.

Authoritative versus supportive behaviour

For more information about situational leadership, and other theories of leadership, click on the links on the right-hand bar.