Using the Path Goal Leadership Theory

Path goal leadership is a very personal theory. For instance, sometimes I feel like life is constantly dangling a carrot from a stick right in front of my face. It may bother me a little, but it doesn’t stop me from going after it. That’s the great thing about goals, no matter how long they stay in front of you, is that you keep going after them.

The path goal leadership theory plays on this concept. It is the strategy of leadership that makes the leader’s task to motivate and clarify the group’s goals, essentially making them a coach. This interpretation holds that the leader empowers the group to reach their goals, and ensures that they share an awareness of what those goals are. As the leader you are not only charged with giving your team the carrot, but making sure that carrot is what they really want (and that they can eventually get it.)

What it means:

Path goal leadership theory encourages a strong communication about goals and direction, with a strong relationship between the leader and the group. With a clear set of requirements and providing the tools to complete them, the leader can build a string of successes toward the end target.

There are four roles the leader can play within this theory (as defined by Robert House, an organizational theorist who first coined the term.) These subsets of leadership style in the path goal theory are adaptable to different situations and not mutually exclusive, so leader’s can adjust to fit their needs.

The four styles:

  • In achievement-oriented leadership, the leader sets challenging goals for followers, expects them to perform at their highest level, and shows confidence in their ability to succeed.
  • In directive leadership, the leader lets followers know what is expected of them and tells them how to perform their tasks. It is a highly structured form of the path goal leadership theory.
  • Participative leadership involves leaders consulting with followers and asking for their suggestions before making a decision. It is similar to the democratic leadership style.
  • In supportive leadership, the leader is friendly and approachable. The leader shows concern for the followers’ psychological well being, making the team members more comfortable to pursue their own goals.
  • How to use it:

    If you have a good understanding of what the needs of the group are, then you can adapt to the styles as the situation demands:

    • Achievement oriented works best when the staff suffers from lack of challenge and boredom.
    • Directive leadership helps workers cope with otherwise vague and unclear job responsibilities
    • Participative leadership is effective in situations where the follower is making poor decisions or improper procedure and the leader can take steps to help them improve.
    • Supportive leadership is useful with a team that is new, inexperienced, or otherwise lacking confidence.

    When working with a team that has lost motivation, or whose goals have become unclear through a significant change in the environment, path goal leadership is a great way to get everyone back on agreeable terms. With ease to visualize goals, and the direction to achieve them, you can create a sort of small-scale mission that is easier to communicate to the team and get buy in for.

    Once you have the team “on the path”, with the carrot so deliciously positioned, the group will start to see the value of the group and regain their faith in the mission.


    Path goal leadership theory can incorporate several leadership styles. Learn about them here.