Leadership is an incredibly complex, ambiguous concept. This fact is exhibited by the sheer number of different theories and approaches that have been developed in an attempt to both explain it and provide advice for it. Path-goal theory is one such attempt that should be in the forefront of any leader’s mind if they want to seriously consider long-term leadership success. Reason being, path-goal theory itself is similar to leadership: it’s complex and ambiguous. While this aspect of the theory is often a major criticism, it is a very realistic take on the subject and part of the reason it should be recognized.
Path-goal theory is broken down into three components that lead to helping followers reach their goals: leader behaviors, follower characteristics, and task characteristics (Northouse, 2016). There are four leadership behaviors: directive leadership, which is very instructive; supportive leadership is respectful and considerate of followers; participative leadership revolves around followers helping to make decisions; finally, achievement-oriented leadership, which involves challenging followers to help them improve (Northouse, 2016). The theory then asks leaders to determine the characteristics of both their followers and the task at hand. Based on those characteristics, the most effective leadership behavior is prescribed for the situation (Northouse, 2016). While this may seem fairly straightforward, there are a multitude of combinations for follower and task characteristics which can make it difficult for a leader to determine which behavior to portray. Additionally, different leadership behaviors can effectively address the same characteristics. For instance, when a task is both complex and ambiguous, both directive and achievement-oriented leadership can be effective, therefore, the characteristics of the followers must be identified (Northouse, 2016).
The complex, incomplete nature of path-goal theory is often its major criticism. However, in essence, path-goal theory is being criticized because it fails to account for every possible scenario, something that could never be accomplished by one theory. Instead, path-goal theory provides leaders with a foundation on which they can develop their own leadership preferences. Life is too complicated for there to be strict rules that must be universally followed in order to be successful as a leader. Not every task or follower characteristic could possibly be accounted for and then correctly assessed because there are too many combinations. Path-goal theory acknowledges that and helps guide leaders to success rather than force them. In doing so, there is an assumption that leaders will use the theory, in combination with the experiences they gain over time, to become more effective. The leadership behaviors suggested in path-goal theory are like tools in a tool belt which leaders use when the situation call for it. However, just like path-goal theory doesn’t suggest only one leadership behavior for every situation, leaders shouldn’t only consider one theory or approach to leadership. The realistic nature of path-goal theory shows how useful it can be in many situations and that it should be added to the toolbelt of any dedicated leader.
Northouse, P. G. (2007). Contingency Theory. Leadership: Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks. SAGE.