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What is Fiedler's Contingency Model?

Fred Fiedler's Contingency Model was the third notable situational model of leadership to emerge. This model appeared first in Fiedler's 1967 book, A Theory of Leadership Effectiveness.

The essence of Fiedler's theory is that a leader's effectiveness depends on a combination of two forces:

  1. The leader's leadership style, and
  2. 'Situational favourableness'.

Fiedler called the combination of leadership style and 'situational favourableness' Situational Contingency.

Fiedler - Leadership Styles

Fiedler described two basic leadership styles - task-orientated and relationship-orientated:

1. Task-Oriented Leaders

  • These leaders have a strong bias towards getting the job done without worrying about their rapport or bond with their followers. 
  • They can, of course, run the risk of failing to deliver if they do not engage enough with the people around them.

2. Relationship-Oriented Leaders

  • These leaders care much more about emotional engagement with the people they work with, but sometimes to the detriment of the task and results.

Fiedler said neither style is inherently superior. However, he asserted that certain leadership challenges suit one style or the other better. 

Fiedler - Situational Favourableness

Fiedler defined three factors determining the favourableness of the situation:

  1. How much trust, respect and confidence exists between leader and followers.
  2. How precisely the task is defined and how much creative freedom the leader gives to the followers.
  3. How much do the followers accept the leader's power.

Fiedler believed the situation is favourable when:

  1. There is high mutual trust, respect and confidence between leaders and followers.
  2. The task is clear and controllable.
  3. The followers accept the leader's power.

The situation is unfavourable if the opposite is true on all three points.

Leadership Effectiveness

Fiedler said that task-orientated leaders are most effective when facing a situation that is either extremely favourable or extremely unfavourable. In other words:

  • When there is enormous trust, respect and confidence,
  • When the task is very clear, and
  • When followers accept the leader's power without question,

and also when the opposite is true, i.e.:

  • when trust and respect do not exist,
  • when the challenge people face is vague and undefined, and
  • when the atmosphere is anarchic or even rebellious (for example, in an emergency or crisis)

Fiedler concluded that relationship-orientated leaders are most effective in less extreme circumstances. That is, in situations that are neither favourable nor unfavourable or situations that are only moderately favourable or moderately unfavourable.

Shown in a table:

Situation Favourableness

Most Effective Leadership Style



task-oriented leader



relationship-oriented leader



task-oriented leader

Fiedel's View of Personality

Fiedler's theory took a significant and firm view of personality: 

  • He said that a leader's style reflected his or her personality, (which incidentally he assessed in his research using a psychometric instrument).
  • Fiedler's view about personality - and indeed the common notion of the times - was that individual personality is fixed and does not change during a leader's life/career. 
  • Consequently, Fiedler's theory placed great emphasis on 'matching' leaders to situations, according to the perceived style of the leader and the situation faced (by the organisation).

As such, Fiedler's theory also encourages us to consider the leader's personality and the leader's behaviour from these angles:

  • The extent to which (a leader's) personality is fixed, and
  • The extent to which (a leader's) personality controls (a leader's) behaviour.

Clearly, if a model such as this is to be of great value, then these questions need to be clarified rather than they have been to date, which is not easy given the complexity of human nature.

Limitations of Fiedler's Contingency Model

Fiedler's Contingency Model is, therefore, a somewhat limited model for effective leadership. 

  • Notably, it's not a useful guide for helping people become better leaders; 
  • nor is it an efficient or necessarily flexible model for modern leadership in organisations, given the dynamic variety of situations that nowadays arise.

A further implication of Fiedler's theory is potentially to require the replacement of leaders whose styles do not match situations, which from several viewpoints (legal, practical, ethical, etc.) would be simply unworkable in modern organisations.

Nevertheless, despite its limitations, Fiedler's theory was an important contribution to leadership thinking, especially in reinforcing the now generally accepted views that:

  1. There is no single ideal way of behaving as a leader, and
  2. Matching leadership behaviour (or style) to circumstances (or situations) - or vice-versa - is significant ineffective leadership.


We are left to conclude somewhat conditionally, that if personality is fixed (which generally it is) and personality controls behaviour, (which generally, it seems to) then the notion of:

  • 'matching behaviour to the circumstances'

probably equates unavoidably to:

  • 'matching the person to the circumstances' ,

which is usually not a viable approach to leadership and leadership development within modern organisations.

We live in an increasingly virtual world which allows lots of inter-changeability (like 'matrix management for example - where followers may have two different bosses for two different sets of responsibilities, such as local markets vs international markets), but most indications are that frequently changing leaders in order to match fixed leadership behaviours to corresponding and suitable situations is less efficient and effective than organisations having leaders who can adapt freely outside of, and despite, individual personality constraints.


James Scouller Biography

We are grateful to James Scouller for his help, patience, and expert contribution in producing this leadership guide.

James Scouller is an expert coach and partner at The Scouller Partnership in the UK, which specialises in coaching leaders. He was chief executive of three international companies for eleven years before becoming a professional coach in 2004. He holds two postgraduate coaching qualifications and training in applied psychology at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London.

James Scouller's book is called "The Three Levels of Leadership: How to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Know-how and Skill" which was published in May 2011.