Situational Leadership Theory by McCleskey

Analysis of leadership in business, as well as other settings, has led to the establishment of several different approaches. One of such approaches is the Situational Leadership theory. It claims a leader should focus on specific tasks at hand and consider the employees’ maturity as well as the leader’s own experiences, but receives criticism for the lack of specific recommendations.

The cornerstone of situational leadership is the notion that the leader should focus on the specific conditions of the task rather than nurture a special kind of relationship between the leader and his following. As McCleskey (2014) puts it, the necessary prerequisite of effective leadership is “a rational understanding of the situation and an appropriate response, rather than a charismatic leader with a large group of dedicated followers” (p. 118). In this approach, the relationship between the leader and the followers is not at the center, but only constitutes one of the components of successful guidance. By shifting its focus from the idea of an influential leader to the task-oriented approach, situational leadership theory suggests that different circumstances require adopting different styles of leadership. As a consequence, situational leadership theory stresses specifically that every distinct situation requires solutions of its own rather than the application of a pre-existing universal pattern (McCleskey, 2014). Therefore, a fundamental idea of situational leadership is that modifying and changing leadership styles based on the task at hand is pivotal for success.

However, it would be wrong to assume that situational leadership only concentrates on a given task and omits the relationship between the leader and the followers. Rather than ignore this relationship and behavioral aspects of leadership, this theory aims to balance attention to the specific task and the specific people who are to complete it (McCleskey, 2014). According to the situational leadership theory, “task-oriented and relation-oriented behaviors are dependent, rather than mutually exclusive” (McCleskey, 2014, p. 118). Hence, instead of excluding the leader-follower relationship from the larger scheme of things or putting it in the center, situational leadership theory views it as one of the factors defining a necessary leadership style. It stresses specifically that adequate guidance is “contingent on follower maturity,” and different degrees of personal and job maturation demonstrated by the followers are among the factors to take into account (McCleskey, 2014, p. 118). Thus, situational leadership theory pays attention to the leader-follower relationship as well, although it does not portray it as the single most important factor.

Situational leadership theory has received its fair share of criticism, mostly for the lack of specific recommendations. Since situational leadership only proclaims general principles rather than gives recipes, it mainly relies on “abstract leadership types that [are] difficult to identify” (McCleskey, 2014, p. 118). In other words, situational leadership theory maintains that leadership style should adapt to a particular situation, but it rarely, if ever, explains, which style would correspond to which case precisely.

To summarize, situational leadership theory is one of the approaches to leadership. Its main point is that success requires a task-oriented approach rather than pure charisma and dedication. This focus on the particular task at hand does not remove the leader-follower relationship form the larger scheme of things but demotes it to one of the factors rather than the core constituent. However, situational leadership theory is prone to general principles rather than specific recommendations, which is a widely criticized downside.


McCleskey, J.A. (2014). Situational, transformational, and transactional leadership and leadership development. Journal of Business Studies Quarterly 5(4), 117-130.