Path Goal Theory of Leadership

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Leadership is about motivating employees to rise above their potential and achieving the extraordinary. While there are several different leadership styles, successful leaders are those who can adapt their style according to the situation and the mindset of the employees. Several factors decide the best leadership style in any given situation including employee motivation level, relationship between the leader and employees and leader’s perception of employee capabilities. A successful leader is one who can keep control over the factors which can make the situation favorable and unfavorable. Robert J. House’s Theory of Path Goal Leadership addresses this aspect of leadership behavior and provides a comprehensive way of handling situations in a favorable manner making it one of the best leadership theories.

Leadership Theories

In recent years, most leadership theories have focused the relationship between the leader and the subordinate. The main leadership theories which try to come up with leader behavior based on the relationship between the leader and the subordinate include Hersey-Blanchard situational leadership theory, Fielder’s contingency leadership model, Vroom-Jago Leadership model and House’s path goal theory. As discussed in this essay, of these theories, the path goal theory offers the most comprehensive model of leader behavior.

Path Goal Theory of Leadership

The Robert J. House’s Path Goal Theory of Leadership (1971) tries to explain how leaders can motivate their followers to achieve group and organizational goals. According to him, effective leaders make sure that they have “control over outcomes their subordinates desire, reward subordinates for performing at a high level by giving them their desired outcomes and raise their subordinates belief in their ability to achieve goals”. Also, in determining how they treat their subordinates, they take into account their “subordinates characteristics and the type of work they do”. In order to be effective, House (1996) identified four types of behavior that leaders can engage in to motivate their subordinates. These are:

  • Directive behavior aims to provide the subordinates with a psychological structure by letting the subordinates know what they are expected to do. Scheduling and coordinating work, giving specific guidance and clarifying policies, rules and procedures. This kind of directive behavior aims to reduce ambiguity and clarifies the subordinate’s perception of the degree to which their performance would result in goal attainment.
  • Supportive behavior aims to satisfy the subordinates needs and preferences by displaying concern for subordinate’s welfare and creating a psychologically supportive work environment.
  • Participative behavior encourages subordinate’s influence in the decision making process by consulting the subordinates and taking their opinions and suggestions into account while making decisions.
  • Achievement oriented behavior aims to encourage performance excellence by setting challenging goals, seeking improvement, emphasizing excellence and showing confidence in subordinate’s ability to achieve the goals.

Thus, House’s path goal theory of leadership provides a comprehensive model of desired leader behavior in order to ensure that subordinates achieve organizational goals. The theory proposes several alternate behavior types which the leaders can adopt so as to be successful in any kind of corporate setting. The aim of each one of the four behaviors mentioned above is to help subordinates give their bets performance. In today’s corporate structure, which aims at maximizing employee output, this theory can help leaders determine the best behavior they need to adopt in different settings. Successful leaders can change their behavior depending on the organizational goals, company policies and even subordinate attitude. By providing a wide range of alternate and complimentary behaviors, the theory gives leaders a lot of flexibility and on what is ideal way in order to be successful.

Benefits of the Theory

The path goal theory is not the first or the only leadership theory. However, it is significantly more beneficial than other leadership theories. According to Jermier (1996), unlike other leadership theories, the path goal theory dies not limit itself to simplistic one or two leadership behaviors. While most other leadership models emphasize the task oriented or relationship oriented leadership style, path goal theory specifies four distinct varieties of leadership behaviors, thus making it a lot more comprehensive than the other leadership models. All the other well known situational leadership models do not cover the wide range of behavioral aspects of leadership which are covered by House. Fiedler’s Contingency Model focuses on two types of leaders, task oriented and relationship oriented. However, both these leadership styles focus on directing the subordinate and do not take into account the subordinate’s viewpoint as the participative behavior of path goal theory. Also by bringing into picture the expected goals, the path goal theory becomes more practical for use in real life corporate environment. After all, the purpose of any kind leadership is to achieve corporate goals. The Fiedler model only focuses on leader subordinate relationship while the path goal theory allows for ways to improve these relationships.

Hersey-Blanchard situational leadership theory also gives four leadership behaviors, however, these behaviors are limited to various ways that leaders can employ to communicate with the subordinates and make decisions. It does not refer to other functions of leaders, such as supporting the subordinate by showing concern for his welfare or encouraging the subordinate the perform better by showing confidence in his abilities. The Vroom-Jago model, like the other two, also focuses on directing the subordinate and gives various ways in which the leaders can take decisions and communicate them to the subordinates. However, none of these leadership models focus on improving employee’s ability to achieve goals or motivating the employees. In this regard, House’s path goal theory stands out since it focuses on the rewarding employees for their effort and requires the leader to actually keep a control on the outcomes the subordinates desire so as to be better able to motivate them. Hence by focusing on employee motivation instead of just ways to pass to on instructions to the employees, the path goals theory comes across as a much more comprehensive theory on leadership. As Jermier (1996) points out leadership is anything but simple and there is no one best way of thinking. By recognizing the complexity of leadership and focusing on motivation, the theory also allows for situations where leaders may have little or no consequences to the final outcomes.

Lessons from Path Goal Theory

As mentioned, leading people is not simple. A leader is likely to come across a wide range of personality types and may have a wide range of relationships with their subordinates. Under the circumstance, the path goal theory helps provide a framework which can guide young leaders. As the theory suggests, leaders should alter their behavior in keeping in mind the nature of the subordinate and the work they do. For example, when the employee is working under a lot of stress, supportive behavior may help them give better performance. On the other hand, while working on a particularly difficult project, employees may appreciate directive behavior. But when the job is easy and routine, employees may resent being told what to do and directive behavior may not work. Under the circumstance, participative behavior would be more useful to motivating employees and making sure that they accept decisions. Thus, altering leader behavior according to the situation can help the leader develop better relations with their subordinates, motivate them and make sure that the subordinates accept the decisions made by the leader.

The benefits of changing leader behaviors, as suggested by theory, have also been tested by several empirical studies. According to Sagie and Koslowsky (1994), when an organization is gong through major changes, or when senior management is trying to implement a new system to improve the productivity and efficiency, the employees expect to be involved in the decision making process. However, although subordinates expect to be included into deciding how the changes are implemented, they do not have similar expectation about whether the change should be implemented or not. If young managers are aware of this difference, they are more likely to be successful in their duties by coming up with new ideas which would help improve the efficiency and then implementing while ensuring total employee participation. This understanding of when to engage in directive behavior and when to use a more participative behavior can help leaders be more successful in achieving their organizational as well as personal goals.

The path goal theory can be useful in any organization and in any field of management. Studies have shown the benefits of the theory in a wide range of occupations and functions ranging from marketing, healthcare and military. Bartone (2006) studied the factors which make some people resilient in face of stress while others suffer and decided that it was the hardiness of the individual which decided an individual’s resilience. He argued that highly effective leaders can increase hardiness and resilient responses in stressful circumstances. Considering that the path goal theory outlines a way for the making of effective leaders, this suggests that the theory not only proposes a way to achieve organizational goals but also to ensure that the employees remain under minimal stress, thus improving their efficiency. This can be especially helpful to a leader trying to manage during stressful times, such as major organizational changes. Thus, in short, whatever the circumstance, the path goal theory provides for a way for a leader to be efficient and motivate the subordinates to give their best.


The path goal theory of leadership proposed by House is a very comprehensive theory which takes into account all the different types of circumstances in which leaders have to operate. By focusing on leadership behaviors which satisfy subordinate expectancies, the theory also provides for a way to keep employee morale and motivation high. The various aspects of the theory can be employed successfully depending on the conditions. The theory has shown to be successful as a leadership tool in all kinds of conditions and especially during stressful times. In today’s high stress business environment, the path goal theory can help young managers be successful by guiding them on how to be effective leaders.


Bartone, P. (2006). Resilience Under Military Operational Stress: Can Leaders Influence Hardiness?. Military Psychology, 18131-148. doi:10.1207/s15327876mp1803s_10.

House, R. (1971). A Path Goal Theory of Leader Effectiveness. Administrative Science Quarterly, 16(3), 321-339. Retrieved from Business Source Complete database.

House, R. (1996, Fall96). Path-goal theory of leadership: Lessons, legacy, and a reformulated theory. Leadership Quarterly, p. 323. Retrieved from Business Source Complete database.

Jermier, J. (1996, Fall96). The path-goal theory of leadership: A subtextual analysis. Leadership Quarterly, p. 311. Retrieved from Business Source Complete database.

Sagie, A., & Koslowsky, M. (1994). Organizational attitudes and behaviors as a function of participation in strategic and tactical change decisions: an application of path — goal theory. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 15(1), 37-47. Retrieved from Business Source Complete database.

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