“Effective leadership is finding a good fit between behaviour, context, and need.” – White & Hodgson, 2003
What is it exactly that makes a leader effective? According to one theory of leadership that became prominent during the 1970s and 80s, effective leadership is dependent upon the interaction between a leader’s behaviors and the situation itself. This approach is known as the contingency theory of leadership.
Gill (2011) explains, “Contingency theories suggest that there is no one best style of leadership. Successful and enduring leaders will use various styles according to the nature of the situation and the followers.”
Understanding the Contingency Theory of Leadership
Contingency theory suggests that the effectiveness of leadership is dependent on the characteristics of the situation. A person can be a highly effective leader in one situation, but they might be much less effective in other situations.
The theory is not focused on whether someone is an inherently good or bad leader. Instead, it is all about determining whether certain leadership traits are well-suited to the situation. This means that the traits that make a leader effective vary depending on the circumstances.
How Do Contingency Theories Work?
Those who support contingency theory suggest that the best leaders are those who known how to adopt different styles of leadership in different situations. These leaders know that just because one approach to leadership worked well in the past, it does not mean that it will work again when the situation or task is not the same.
So what are some of the variables that might influence which leadership style is most effective?
Gill (2011) suggests that these might include:
- The maturity levels of the subordinates or followers
- Whether the relationship between the leader and the followers is a positive one
- The clarity of the task at hand
- The amount of personal power held by the leader
- The level of power given by the leader’s position
- The culture of the organization
- The amount of time available to complete the task
- The speed at which the task must be completed
Other factors that can determine whether a leader is effective in a particular situation include characteristics of the workplace, work schedules, how tasks and teams are structured, and the relationships between employees and leaders.
Contingency Leadership Models
A number of different approaches to contingency theory have emerged over the years. The following are just a few of the most prominent theories:
Fiedler’s Contingency Theory
The contingency theory of leadership was one of the first situational leadership theories. One of the very first contingency theories was proposed by Fred. E. Fiedler in the 1960s. Fiedler’s theory proposes that a leader’s effectiveness hinges on how well his or her leadership style matches the current context and task.
Fiedler’s pioneering theory suggests that leaders fall into one of two different leadership styles: task-oriented or people-oriented. The effectiveness of a person’s style in a particular situation depends on how well-defined the job is, how much authority the leader has, and the relationship between the followers and the leader.
The Evans and House Path-Goal Theory
The path-goal contingency theory of leadership, first proposed by Martin Evans and later expanded by Robert House during the 1970s, focuses on how leadership behavior can help followers achieve the group’s goals. Four key types of behavior are identified (directive, supportive, achievement-oriented, and participative), and the type of behavior applied should depend upon the nature of the task.
- Supportive leadership: This approach involves assessing each team member’s goals and preferences in order to help maximize productivity.
- Participating leadership: This involves leaders working with and supporting team members.
- Directive-clarifying leadership: This approach involves giving directions, explanations, and instructions to keep team members on task.
- Achievement-oriented leadership: This approach gives team members more independence, but also comes with high goals and expectations.
Hershey and Blanchard’s Situational Theory
Paul Hershey and Kenneth Blanchard proposed a situational theory of leadership characterized by four leadership styles.
These four styles are:
- The delegating style: This approach involves delegating tasks to skilled, knowledgeable team members. This approach works best when followers are high-level experts.
- The participating style: This approach involves more give-and-take between leaders and followers. This approach works best when team members are skilled, but may need some additional support.
- The selling style: In this approach, leaders must “sell” and motivate employees to buy into their ideas. This approach can be helpful when motivation and initiative are low.
- The telling style: This approach involves more supervision and direct instruction. It is best suited for when team members are inexperienced and lack skills or maturity.
The style that should be used in a particular situation depends upon the maturity level of the subordinates. For example, if followers lack both knowledge and responsibility, the leader should adopt a directive leadership style in that situation.
Decision-making theory, more formally known as the Vroom-Yetton-Jago decision-making model of contingency leadership, suggests that effective leaders engage in certain decision-making behaviors that are suited to the situation. This includes evaluating the specific situation, deciding how much support group members needs, and then adjusting their own leadership approach to suit the demands of the situation and the group.
This model describes five different leadership styles:
- Autocratic style 1: This is an authoritarian approach in which the leader makes all the decisions without consulting members of the group.
- Autocratic style 2: In this approach, the leader still makes all the decisions but they gather information from team members before making decisions.
- Consultive style 1: In this style, the leader makes decisions but first consults with group members to learn what everyone else thinks.
- Consultive style 2: This involves more regular discussion and information-sharing, but the leader ultimately makes the final choice.
- Collaborative style: This is a democratic approach to leadership where group members offer input, discuss options, and work together to make decisions.
Why the Contingency Theory of Leadership Matters
Understanding the contingency theory of leadership can help provide a better understanding of how leadership traits and situational factors interact.
Some theories of leadership promote the idea that great leaders are born and not made. Others suggest that people possess a predominant leadership style that persists across different situations. Both of these approaches stress the idea that some people are great leaders while others are poor.
Contingency leadership theory disputes this idea. Instead, it stresses that great leadership is more about the fit between the characteristics of the leader and the nature of the situation.
While the contingency theory suggests that some leaders will be effective in certain situations and not in others, it is important to note that people can learn, adapt, and change. Learning more about your own strengths and weaknesses as a leader can help you find ways to adapt your own approach to leadership based on the situation.
How to Use the Contingency Theory of Leadership
Contingency leadership can be useful in a variety of ways:
- Understand the impact of the situation: Recognizing that your own leadership style will interact with many different factors, including the situation, the task, and the people involved, can be helpful.
- Know your weaknesses: Just as it is important to know when you are most effective, understanding your weak spots is also critical. When you know there are situations where your leadership might be less effective, you can then look for ways to modify your approach to best suit the situation.
- Consider leadership training: Strengthen your skills and educate yourself about how situational factors can impact the efficacy of your leadership. Knowing more about the complex nature of the situation will allow you to better excel as a leader.
The contingency approach to leadership remains popular today, but it is not without criticism. Gill (2011) suggests that two of the key criticisms of contingency theories are that they do not account for the position of the leader or how styles change. While these theories help account for the importance of the situation, they do not explain the processes behind how leadership styles vary according to factors such as the organization or the position of the leader within the structure. Perhaps most importantly, they do not explain how leaders can change their behavior or style depending on the situation or features of the group.
If you want to learn more about your own leadership strengths and weaknesses, take our leadership style quiz.
Fiedler FE. A contingency model of leadership effectiveness. In: Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Vol 1. Elsevier; 1964:149-190. doi:10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60051-9
Gill R. Theory and practice of leadership. London: SAGE Publications; 2011.
Hersey P, Blanchard KH. An introduction to situational leadership. Training and Development Journal. 1969;23:26–34.
House RJ. Path–goal theory of leadership: Lessons, legacy, and a reformulated theory. Leadership Quarterly. 1996;7:323–352.
Mills JK, McKimm J. Contingency theories of leadership: how might we use them in clinical practice? Br J Hosp Med (Lond). 2016;77(5):268-271. doi:10.12968/hmed.2016.77.5.268
White RP, Hodgson P. The newest leadership skills. In M. Goldsmith, V. Govindarajan, B. Kaye, & A. A. Vicere (Eds.)., The many Facets of Leadership. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education; 2003.
Kendra Cherry, MS.Ed., is an author, educator, and founder of Explore Psychology, an online psychology resource. She is a health writer and editor specializing in psychology, mental health, and wellness. She also writes for Verywell Mind and is the author of the Everything Psychology book (Adams Media).
Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.