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What is the Tannenbaum and Schmidt Continuum?

Tannenbaum and Schmidt's Continuum is a highly significant body of work in the field of management and leadership.

The material below offers a different perspective on the earlier narrative. It explores the model in the context of other leadership theories.

Robert Tannenbaum and Warren Schmidt first presented their Leadership Behaviour Continuum in a 1958 article in the Harvard Business Review, titled 'How to Choose a Leadership Pattern '.

  • Tannenbaum and Schmidt explained the choices that leaders have in decision-making, and the pressures arising from these options.

They suggested that a leader has seven decision-making options when leading a group, which the diagram below shows:

Tannenbaum and Schmidt Continuum 7 Levels

Tannenbaum and Schmidt Continuum Overview

The diagram and terminology are adapted from Tannenbaum and Schmidt's original, for improved presentation purposes.

  • 'Use of authority by manager' = 'Area of Power retained by the leader' (T&S terminology)
  • 'Area of freedom for subordinates' = 'Amount of power held by the whole group (including the leader)' (T&S terminology)

From a group development standpoint, moving from left to right along the continuum, the leader gives up his or her power in making solo decisions so that he/she progressively involves the group, until the group effectively becomes self-managing.

At the far left, the leader sets goals, makes decisions and then tells the others what they are going to do. At the opposite end of the continuum, the leader permits (perhaps encourages) the group to define the issues they are facing and share the decision-making.

Tannenbaum and Schmidt's model is oriented notably towards decision-making and ignores other aspects of leadership.

Nevertheless, the model is powerful and insightful. It's a wonderfully concise and easily applicable tool, showing leaders the many choices they have.

The Tannenbaum and Schmidt Continuum model also reminds us that all (seven) options are available to leaders depending on the situation. The 'situation' is most commonly a combination of:

  1. The capability of the group (in various respects - skills, experience, workload, etc), and
  2. The nature of the task or project (again in various respects - complexity, difficulty, risk, value, timescale, relevance to group capability, etc).
For example:
  • The leader of an inexperienced army platoon under enemy fire will tend to be more effective at stage 1 on the Continuum, whereas,
  • the head of a product innovation team, under no great pressure, leading an experienced and capable group, will tend to be more effective acting at stage 7 on the Continuum.

Tannenbaum and Schmidt - Three Pressures Faced by Leaders

Tannenbaum and Schmidt further explained that when leaders choose decision-making options they should consider especially three sets of pressures which will be outlined in more detail below:

  1. Situational pressures
  2. Inner psychological pressures
  3. Pressures coming from subordinates

1. Situational Pressures

  • The complexity of the problem.
  • The importance of the decision.
  • The time pressure.

2. The Leader's Inner Pressures

  • The leader's preferences around decision-making (his values, beliefs, behavioural habits).
  • The leader's confidence in his or her team colleagues' knowledge and experience.
  • How important or risky the decision is to him/her or her personally.

3. Pressures Coming From Subordinates

  • The leader's colleagues' (the group members') desire to 'have a say' in the decision.
  • The group's willingness to take responsibility for the outcomes.
  • The group's ability to reach decisions together.
  • The group's readiness and ability to accept and follow orders.


Tannenbaum and Schmidt's model demonstrates and provides seven ways of approaching group leadership decisions.

  • It also defines and predicts typical related internal and external pressures that leaders must consider when choosing a decision-making position.
  • The underlying teaching is that the leader must have the necessary self-awareness, presence of mind, and wisdom, to consider the three sets of pressures (and the ten component forces) before choosing the most effective behaviour.

As with Kurt Lewin's Three Styles model, The Tannenbaum and Schmidt Continuum offers and advocates a flexible approach to leadership; that the effective leader varies his/her behaviour at will, according to circumstances.


James Scouller Biography

We are grateful to James Scouller for his help, patience, and expert contribution to 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.