The situational leadership model was developed in the 1960s by an Ohio State University management professor named Paul Hersey. His research into the psychology of leadership was published in 1969 in Management of Organizational Behavior (Prentice Hall), a textbook that has sold more than 1 million copies and is in its seventh edition. Hersey later founded the Center for Leadership Studies, a management training firm in Escondido, California, that has helped teach the model to people in small and large companies worldwide.
The situational leadership model assumes that the biggest mistake most managers make is using the same leadership style with everyone. For instance, leaders may delegate too much authority to an employee who isn't ready or able to handle it. Or, they may micromanage an employee who would perform better if left alone.
Situational leadership promises to help managers figure out where their followers are, then match their leadership styles to the appropriate level. "Situational leadership introduces a diagnostic process to leadership," says Johnson, who, along with Hersey and management guru Ken Blanchard, co-wrote Management of Organizational Behavior. "That is a big plus."
The situational leadership model divides followers into four readiness levels, based on their willingness and ability. The levels range from R1 (the lowest) to R4 (the person who is most ready, willing and able to handle the task at hand).
Determining readiness levels can be tricky. Leaders may need to take into account a variety of factors, from the time available to complete a task to the organization's history and tradition. Hersey's model provides specific tools to help in the diagnosis as well as to evaluate and correct diagnostic errors.
"When you go through your diagnosis of the individual, sometimes you're going to miss," says Jim Bone, president of The Training Connection Inc., an Irving, Texas, company that offers training in situational leadership. "But when you miss, you're going to get some very predictable human reactions that will tell you where you went wrong."
Hersey also offers a chest of tools for increasing employees' readiness, including, for instance, offers of more money.
Once the correct readiness level is identified, the leader has to choose from four leadership styles. The leadership styles range from S1 through S4, with S1 being the most directive and S4 being the style where managers turn over the greatest responsibility to followers.
Trottier's informal market research on in-line skate wheels was designed to match the readiness levels of his intended customers. Other test marketers might have merely handed out sample wheels or marketing materials with no explanation, but the situational model said that the personal approach was a better way to go in this case.
"In [rural areas], particularly where we were going to start selling the wheel, the readiness of people when it comes to [new trends in] in-line skating is very low," Trottier explains. "So we've had to apply the style level to the readiness level to determine what we tell them about the wheel."