What Is the Contingency Theory of Leadership?

(Last Updated On: September 2, 2021)

“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.”

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

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 leaders has, and the relationship between the followers and the leader.

The Evans and House Path-Goal Theory

According to 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.

Hershey and Blanchard’s Situational Theory

Paul Hershey and Kenneth Blanchard proposed a situational theory of leadership characterized by four leadership styles. 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.

The bottom line:

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 upon the situation or features of the group.


 Fielder, F. E. (1964). A theory of leadership effectiveness. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology. New York: Academic Press.

 Gill, R. (2011). Theory and practice of leadership. London: SAGE Publications.

 Hersey, P. and Blanchard, K. H. (1969). An introduction to situational leadership. Training and Development Journal, 23, 26–34.

 House, R. J. (1996). Path–goal theory of leadership: Lessons, legacy, and a reformulated theory.Leadership Quarterly, 7, 323–352.

 White, R. P. & Hodgson, P. (2003). 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.