Leadership has always been discussed at length and the various theories compared for their strengths and weaknesses.

Ultimately, and going by the number of theories proposed, it is evident that there is no perfect theory which can be used to explain the best way of going about leadership.

One thing however is largely agreed upon, although still with some critics allowed to disagree. Leadership is not all about the leader in the sense that someone can be a perfect leader. The situation greatly influences his effectiveness.

In view of this, one of the theories of leadership is the contingency theory. Because you obviously know what leadership is, what of the contingency theory of leadership?


Contingency theories primarily focus on the context of leadership. They look at the effects of the situation on the success of a leader. Put differently, the propose that a leader’s effectiveness is heavily determined by the situation he is in.

This does not mean that they completely disregard the leader’s personality. They consider it but not as the most important factor determining the success of the leader.

There are various theories classified as contingency theories. These are discussed below.

Fiedler’s contingency theory

Fred Fiedler was an Austrian-born American psychologist who was involved in industrial and organizational psychology. From his research, he found that personalities alone could not effectively help pick a leader. He realized that the situation in which a leader was, greatly determined his success.

He referred to the leader’s personality as the ‘leadership style’ and the situation as the ‘situational favorableness.’ To identify a suitable leader for a given situation, these two aspects would have to be considered.

For the leadership style, Fiedler came up with a scale he called the Least Preferred Co-Worker (LPC) scale.

This scale considers several traits of co-workers a leader would not want to work with. As a leader, this is the person you feel would make it difficult to succeed if working with. An example of the scale is shown below.

Unfriendly 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8 Friendly
Unpleasant 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8 Pleasant
Rejecting 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8 Accepting
Tense 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8 Relaxed
Cold 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8 Warm
Boring 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8 Interesting
Backbiting 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8 Loyal
Uncooperative 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8 Cooperative
Hostile 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8 Supportive
Guarded 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8 Open
Insincere 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8 Sincere
Unkind 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8 Kind
Inconsiderate 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8 Considerate
Untrustworthy 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8 Trustworthy
Gloomy 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8 Cheerful
Quarrelsome 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8 Harmonious

Source: Table from “A Theory of Leadership Effectiveness” by Professor F.E. Fiedler. © 1967. 

You would select the rating of how willing you would be to work with people who had the given traits. At the end of the exercise, all scores are added together. According to Fiedler, the total score could tell whether you are task oriented or people oriented.

If after this exercise you got a Low score (Low LPC), it means that you are more task-oriented. You would therefore perform very well in situations where it was critical that the job gets done. You rarely focus on building relationships but are good at organizing teams to tackle work problems quickly.

Higher scores (High LPC) mean that you are more people-oriented. You have a keen eye for building relationships and are good at maintaining harmony and dealing with complex situations.

When it comes to situational favorableness, there are three factors to be considered. These are:

1. Leader-Member Relations – this is a look at how well you are relating with your followers. If you are in good relation terms with them and they trust you, then the situation is favorable.

Watch the below video for insight on the importance of good leader-follower relations.

2. Task Structure – this is the structure and clarity of the task at hand. If the task is one that is well understood, then the situation is favorable. Otherwise, it is unlikely that you will be successful.

3. Leader’s Positional Power – this is the amount of power that you have over your followers. Power is all about your ability to provide reward or punishment. More power enables you to have significant influence over your followers. If you have more power, then things will work out in your favor. Your positional power is either strong or weak.

Having these two factors considered, they are put together to determine who would be best placed to lead a group at a certain time. Everything combines as per the table below.

Leader-Member Relations Task Structure Leader’s Position Power Most Effective Leader
Good Structured Strong Low LPC
Good Structured Weak Low LPC
Good Unstructured Strong Low LPC
Good Unstructured Weak High LPC
Poor Structured Strong High LPC
Poor Structured Weak High LPC
Poor Unstructured Strong High LPC
Poor Unstructured Weak Low LPC

Breakdown of Most Effective Leader Style

Source: Table from “A Theory of Leadership Effectiveness” by Professor F.E. Fiedler. © 1967. 

An example application would be the scenario of a new project where your team is supposed to design a machine. You have not worked with this team for more than two months and know that you aren’t normally open with them. The leader-member relations are therefore poor.

The amount of information you have about the requirements is not enough thus the task is unstructured. However, you have strong positional power which you can use to direct the team. In this scenario, you would be the best kind of leader if you are a High LPC leader.

Hersey-Blanchard situational leadership theory

This is also referred to as the situational leadership model. It is mainly determined by the level of maturity of your followers. The maturity level of your followers is determined by their task skills and motivation.

  • Task skills – this is the ability for your followers to complete tasks using the skills they have. If their task skills are low, then you will have to impart some knowledge into them.
  • Motivation – this is a measure of the amount of enthusiasm your followers have for finishing tasks. If their motivation is high, then you will not have much work trying to convince them of the importance of staying on course.

On the other hand, they could be less motivated towards working. In such situations, you will have to put in some effort in order to ensure the whole team flows in unity.

Motivation and Task skills are used to form four distinct levels of readiness for the work. These levels are also called the levels of maturity. They are:

  • M1 – your team members lack the skills and motivation to complete the task.
  • M2 – your team members have the motivation for the work but lack the necessary skills.
  • M3 – team members have the required skills but lack the motivation to complete the task.
  • M4 – team members are both skilled and highly motivated to complete the task.

Also to be considered are the leadership styles. These are defined as:

  • Telling/Directing (S1) – under this leadership style, as the leader, you are mainly giving commands and instructions. There is little input from your followers as communication is usually one-way.
  • Selling/Coaching (S2) – with selling, there is more interactions between you and your followers. The way in which you get involved in the work is by providing direction and guidance. This makes it easy for your followers to engage with your although you are still the one calling the shots.
  • Participating/Supporting (S3) – this is a situation where you value relationships highly. As a result, you ensure that work is done in teams where interactions will be possible. As the leader, you will work together with the various teams, thus the name participating.
  • Delegating (S4) – when you have complete trust in your followers whom you have trained, you can give them tasks to work on and be sure they will do a great job. As you trust them more and more, you give them responsibilities and delegate more tasks. This helps them become better.

The below illustration shows the maturity levels and the leadership style that is best for a given situation.

Source: Developing Potential

Path-Goal theory

This theory looks at the leader’s style but puts emphasis on the results coming from the followers. The leader is viewed more like a source of inspiration who can influence his followers to complete the job. The theory was introduced by Martin G. Evans (1970) and further developed by Robert House (1971).

This theory is based on the expectancy theory by Victor Vroom (1964) which essentially states that people always act according to the reward expected. If they believe that what they are told to do will pay off, and the reward is something they value, then they will put in the effort.

As a leader using the path-goal model, you have the basic responsibility of motivating your followers and giving them an assurance of their expectations. You will need to analyze the needs of your followers and adjust accordingly so as to be in a position to effectively engage and motivate them.

The processes in this style of leadership are:

1. Determine the employee and environmental variables – these are the factors to be considered before deciding on which style of leadership to use. Obstacles which may arise in the course of the work may require your intervention if they are too big for your followers.

2. Select a leadership style – this is the main area of work for the leader as he is the real variable. Although the followers are being guided on the best way to succeed, you are the one expected to change your style accordingly. Four leadership styles have been proposed by this model:

  • Directive – you give directions on what needs to be done, how it’s to be done and develop schedules for the work.
  • Supportive – you provide support for your team to make their work less burdensome. Being supportive, you are approachable and ready to get involved in assisting where necessary.
  • Participative – this requires you to engage your followers before making decisions on how best to proceed from one stage of the task to another.
  • Achievement – you set goals for your team and express confidence in their abilities to perform and deliver the required results.

3. Focus on motivating your followers – motivating followers is at the heart of this model. As a leader, your eyes are definitely on the prize/goal. But that ultimate goal is being achieved through the effort of your followers. To ensure they stay on course, especially in a big project or difficult task, consistent motivation is needed.

Vroom–Yetton contingency model

This is also referred to as the decision-making model. Decision making is key in leadership and to a large extent, determines the relations between the leader and the followers. This relation has an impact on the leader’s success.

Leaders make decisions differently. Yet, being a contingency theory, situations still have a lot of influence over how a leader makes decisions.

This theory differentiates between five types of leadership styles. They are primarily three but two have two degrees to which they can be implemented.

  • Autocratic (A1) – a completely autocratic style of leadership is used in making decisions. Whatever information you have becomes enough to make the decision and no further input from your team is required.
  • Autocratic (A2) – this is still autocratic but not as extreme as the previous style. Some consultation is done with your team members so as to obtain more information as needed. Afterwards, you make the decision alone.
  • Consultative (C1) – you consult with your team members individually so as to get their opinions. You then proceed top make the decision by yourself.
  • Consultative (C2) – the consultations in this style of leadership are at a wider level. You organize for a meeting for all team members, or as many as possible, so as to discuss the situation. You get their suggestions but still make the decision yourself.
  • Collaborative (G2) – this style is purely focused on reaching a consensus. You organize for a meeting to discuss the situation. You facilitate the discussion and urge everyone to give their suggestion. The decision is then made together based on the consensus of the team.

To make the decision, some factors also come up as important considerations. These are:

  • Quality of the decision – the quality of the decision to be made is key in determining the process you will follow. For example, critical business decisions require a lot of information to be available. This could mean lots of consultations.
  • Your team’s commitment – the degree of commitment your team has is also a major factor to consider. The more invested people are into you and your business, the more the decisions made will affect them.

As a result, it is wise to ensure you understand your team’s commitment level. If they are heavily invested in the team, then decisions are better made through a collaborative process. This makes them feel appreciated and are likely to be more loyal and supportive.

  • Time constraints – time is always a crucial factor when decisions need to be made fast. You will not have the privilege of consulting widely or gathering a lot of information. As a result, collaborative processes may not be the best for such circumstances. In such cases, the  autocratic style (A1) becomes almost necessary.

It is not an easy thing to make decisions quickly especially in the absence of crucial information. Watch the below video and learn how to go about it.

Vroom and Yetton developed a decision tree to help illustrate the process of decision making. The below image shows the Vroom-Yetton decision tree.

The Vroom-Yetton Decision Model

Source: Mindtools


Given the different perspectives of the contingency theory, it is obvious that there are factors which make one more applicable than the other in a given situation. These are what you will first have to consider before deciding which one of the four styles to use.

Whereas you cannot preempt all factors beforehand, here are some of the most common ones.

Maturity level of the followers

Leaders and followers are never at the same level of thinking, understanding or acting. By and large, regardless of the leadership theory applied, this is one of the reasons the leader stands out as different from the followers.

The maturity level of your followers greatly determines how you interact with them. For example, highly mature followers understand responsibility. As such, you can rely on the job being done once the instructions are given.

On the other hand, less mature followers may not have grasped the importance of this. For this reason, they may not be very diligent in their work thus prone to produce low quality work. For optimum results, you may need to get involved in the work being done.

The organization’s culture

The organization’s culture dictates everything—from communication styles to individual behaviors. It is the leader’s responsibility to create a good culture at the workplace which will make the environment conducive for work.

However, an organization’s culture is also affected by the individuals working in it. People bring in their learned habits and influence the work environment. This is something which the leader has to consciously work on controlling.

For example, if the organization’s culture is one which encourages competition, team work may not be an easy thing to achieve. In such a situation, a leader who works well with teams may have a difficult time operating in this environment, thereby possibly being unsuccessful.

Amount of time available to complete the task

Some tasks have time constraints attached to them. This is especially so in competitive industries. When such tasks are before the organization, then the best way to handle them is to focus on them.

This makes a task-oriented leader very effective because he is mainly concerned in achieving goals. If there is an issue raised which does not directly affect the outcome of the work being done, then the issue may not receive much attention.

Amount of personal power held by the leader

Personal power is the ability to control the situations around you which can hinder you from achieving your goals. It is easily seen in the ability to change from bad habits to productive ones.

Having personal power gives you a good perspective of the situations around you. You are able to understand them in ways others are not. As a result, the kind of interaction you seek with your followers will rely on this insight which you have.

This influences the response you get from your followers when you ask them to do certain jobs. With personal power, you will have an easy time convincing people to do something. Being respectful towards your followers is part of this and helps achieve your goals.

Amount of positional power held by the leader

Positional power is the one exercised by someone by virtue of the position held. If he is a supervisor, he has power over those reporting to him directly.

Positional power can only be practiced depending on the amount of authority you have. A manager will have and exercise power over the employees directly reporting to him but a CEO will have power over all the employees in the organization.

When it comes to leadership however, things can go south if you abuse your authority. And as much as you may still be the manager (positional power), you may have lost the ability to influence and direct people after they lose their trust in you. Watch the below video to understand this.

Type of relationship between the leader and followers

The relationship which you have with your followers is key in determining how the situation will be handled. If the relationship is positive, then it becomes easy for you to get input from your followers.

It will also be easier to direct your followers when you have something that needs to be done. A positive relationship between a leader and his followers will provide a conducive environment for the leader’s success regardless of the situation arising.

Clarity of task at hand

Some tasks are simple while others are complex. If the task is easy enough, then you can use a style which focuses on delegation without much concern. If however it is complex, you may need to be more involved in the execution of the tasks.

This is also related to the technical expertise of your followers. If the followers are technically or intellectually skilled, then dealing with situations will be easier as opposed to when they lack these skills.


The contingency theory of leadership gives much attention to the situations surrounding the leader. It gained much acceptance and was hailed for several reasons. Some of them are:

1. It has brought better understanding to the study of leadership – this theory does not attempt to explain leadership as something that can be handled using a particular style. In fact, there is no best style of leadership. With this theory, the situations determine the kind of leadership required.

As such, it recognizes that different situations bring about different demands which are the ones that determine whether a particular style of leadership will be effective or not.

2. It helps know what kind of leaders are needed for various situations – these theories give the understanding of how situations affect the success of a leader. In order to achieve success in a particular situation, an organization could easily check the leadership styles of various candidates then pick one for the position.

This gives the contingency theory the ability to predict who could become a suitable leader in certain situations. All that is needed is an understanding of the situation and the leadership styles of the candidates.

3. Can help organizations in human resource planning – this theory is based on a lot of research and as such, can provide organizations with a lot of information to help them build leadership profiles.

This is very helpful because as different situations occur, an organization will know who exactly to put in a position that can steer a project into success.


Like all other theories, the contingency theory is not without its fair share of criticism. The below considerations are some of the arguments by critics.

  • It doesn’t account for the position of the leader – although this theory is a leadership theory, it focuses too much on the situation and does not consider the leader himself. This means that it doesn’t really look at what it’s meant to explain—the leader.
  • Can be too rigid to practice – for example, the LPC scale proposed by Fiedler can be used to decide that a leader is not a good leader based on his LPC score. However, in some cases, it may actually be that the situation itself is what needs to change.
  • It doesn’t offer opportunities to improve leaders – with no set traits to develop but only focusing on the situation, it becomes difficult to groom leaders. The theory primarily proposes specific types of styles which all leaders are supposed to fall under.


The contingency theory of leadership is concerned with the situations which leaders operate in. The theory suggests that these situations are what determine the effectiveness of the leader.

Although quite different from other theories, it still gives a unique perspective to be considered.

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