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Path-Goal Theory - Robert House

Technical Details

Name(s): Path-Goal Theory
Author: Robert House
Classification: Contingency or Transactional Leadership Theory
Year: 1971, revised in 1996


  • In a situation where something needs to be done in a short time - such as emergencies and complicated situations in which there is a time constraint, this method may be preferable.
  • The formulator of the theory, Robert House acknowledges that "all theories ....are ultimately incorrect..." and that "A theory which cannot be mortally in danger cannot be alive." [1] Hence, there is room for flexibility.
  • The revised theory adds more with respect to group participation, making it more amenable to use in groups who are knowledgeable and intelligent.
  • The Path-Goal Theory has a common sense ring to it and the ideas are easy to convey. The analogy to a path needing to be cleared and workers driven along it is an easy visualization.


  • This theory assumes that the group members do not know what is good for them. It is inherently undemocratic.
  • If the leader has flaws the whole method stands a good chance of failure.
  • Leaders are not always rational, and a course of action might be based on delusion, thus jeopardizing group members.
  • The leader-led-task system could collapse, if there is too much dependence on the leader and where either something happens to the leader or he simply cannot carry out his leadership functions.


The path-goal theory, path-goal theory of leader effectiveness, or path-goal model can be considered as a variant on Transactional Leadership Theory, where the leader clearly is directing activity and the only factor that varies is the manner in which this is done. There are some aspects of Contingency Theory, as well, where various means of application vary with the situation. The leader sees a path that needs to be tread, one leading to the accomplishment of a goal and she or he attempts to clear it and get the group members to tread on it. The leader may cajole, command, reward or punish, get suggestions from the group, or sugar coat the tasks, if necessary, but it is clear that democracy is not the hallmark of this method.


One could refer to the Path-Goal Theory as a leadership participation method, where the leader does what she or he can to clear a path for group members to act. This is done by delineating clearly what is to be done, removing obstacles, and rewarding those who perform well. The levels in intensity a leader may do these things will vary according to the circumstances. The follower may be more motivated or capable, or the work to be done could be easy or difficult. Leadership styles in this method can vary from being dictatorial to the leader being a participant. House and Mitchel say that these styles include support, directive, participative, and achievement-orientation [2]. A leader facilitates the group by appealing to a group member's self-esteem and making the task enjoyable, or at least palatable. A leader simply may direct the group to do the task, as Transactional Theory would have it. With a Contingency Theory approach, at some points, a leader may engage in a participative leadership style, where she or he takes suggestions from the group on how to do work. This assumes the members are knowledgeable. A leader may set standards, goals and urge the group to attain them. This style is used usually used for task that are more complex. Whatever the case, the assumption is that the leader knows what is best in the way of accomplishing something. It also assumes that the leader is rational and that there are ways that positively can work for a situation. In a 1996 a re-formulation of the theory - definitely more Contingency Theory oriented, House stated, that "...leaders, to be effective, engage in behaviors that complement subordinates' environments and capabilities in a manner that compensates for deficiencies and is instrumental to subordinate satisfaction and individual and work unit performance" [3]. House stated that people are trapped in using existing measurements of social phenomena, and "we get trapped in our own paradigms" because these models simply are available. He admits that there have been no tests of specifically of any theory of how a leader's behavior affects followers. The 1996 theory expands to eight classes of leader behavior that he says will help leadership performance. In addition, the behavior can be substituted for each other, depending upon circumstances. House adds ways the group members can be empowered through delegation of authority and work facilitation (developing task autonomy). There is an enhanced group decision process and interaction among members. House talks of value-based leadership that motivates workers to achieve their goals and is justified if it enhances their performance [4].


Even with House's 1996 modifications, the Path-Goal Theory is leader-centered, and if something happens to her or him, and organization can collapse. There cannot be too much dependence on the leader for an organization's survival. Further, as House admits, the whole concept of path-goal needs to be tested. A problem, as with many other theories, there is no quantification of the terms and they are context-free.

The Path-Goal Theory still is undemocratic, and it remains to be seen whether the modifications would work in environments where group members are independently-oriented, intelligent, and knowledgeable. For example, would the theory work in a scientific or academic setting? This raises the concern of whether or not the theory can be universally applied, and to House's credit, he would probably admit that it has limitations.

Future of theory

As House admits, much testing needs to be done on the theory. Work could be done correlating the effectiveness of the theory with other theories. Of course, there are issues with correlating categories of behavior and quantifying variables. An effectiveness scale could be used. As with other theory validation, one can look to the future developments in cognitive neuroscience to assist. Is a worker, for example, really more apt to follow a leader if some of House's methods for motivation are used?

Want to expand on the discussion?

We encourage you to expand on the discussion, add to the critique or even share your vision with regards to the future applications of the theory.

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