Path-Goal Leadership Theory

The Path-Goal model is a theory based on specifying a leader's style or behavior that best fits the employee and work environment in order to achieve a goal (House, Mitchell, 1974). The goal is to increase your employees' motivation, empowerment, and satisfaction so they become productive members of the organization.

Path-Goal is based on Vroom's (1964) expectancy theory in which an individual will act in a certain way based on the expectation that the act will be followed by a given outcome and on the attractiveness of that outcome to the individual. The path-goal theory was first introduced by Martin Evans (1970) and then further developed by House (1971).

The path-goal theory can best be thought of as a process in which leaders select specific behaviors that are best suited to the employees' needs and the working environment so that they may best guide the employees through their path in the obtainment of their daily work activities (goals) (Northouse, 2013).

While Path-Goal Theory is not a detailed process, it generally follows these basic steps as shown in the graphic below:

  1. Determine the employee and environmental characteristics
  2. Select a leadership style
  3. Focus on motivational factors that will help the employee succeed

Path-Goal Theory of Leadership

Employee Characteristics

Employees interpret their leader's behavior based on their needs, such as the degree of structure they need, affiliation, perceived level of ability, and desire for control. For example, if a leader provides more structure than what they need, they become less motivated. Thus, a leader needs to understand their employees so they know how to best motivate them.

Task and Environmental Characteristics

Overcoming obstacles is a special focus of path-goal theory. If an obstacle becomes too strong, then the leader needs to step in and help the employee select a path to work around it. Some of the more difficult task characteristics that often arise are:

Leader Behavior or Style

The independent variables of Path-Goal Theory are the leader's behavior — the leader adjusts her style of behavior to the employee and task characteristics so that the employee's motivation is to excel at their goal.

House and Mitchell (1974) defined four types of leader behaviors or styles: Directive, Supportive, Participative, and Achievement (explained in detail below). They are based on two factors that were identified by an Ohio State University study behaviors (Stogdill, 1974):

The first behavior listed below, Directive, is based on initiating structure. The other three (achievement, participative, and supportive) are based upon consideration.

The four path-goal types of leader behaviors are:

The leaders' behavior is not set in stone, as there are other leadership styles that may be used depending upon the situation. For example, House (1996) defined four other behaviors:


As noted earlier, the independent variables of Path-Goal Theory are the leaders' behavior, thus the path–goal theory assumes that people (leaders) are flexible in that they can change their behavior or style, depending upon the situation. This coincides with the research that while nature (genes) may be our internal guide, nurture (experience) is our explorer that has the final say in what we do (Ridley, 2003).

Next Steps

Next chapter: Transformational Leadership

Related page: Leadership Styles

Return to the main Leadership Page


Evans, M.G. (1970). The effects of supervisory behavior on the path-goal relationship. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance. 5: 277–298.

House, R.J. (1971). A Path-Goal Theory of Leader Effectiveness. Administrative Science Quarterly. 16, 321-328.

House, R.J., Mitchell, T.R. (1974). Path-goal theory of leadership. Journal of Contemporary Business. 3: l–97.

House, R.J. (1996). Path-goal theory of leadership: Lessons, legacy, and a reformulated theory. Leadership Quarterly. 7 (3): 323–352.

Northouse, P. (2013). Leadership Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc.

Ridley, M. (2003). Nature Via Nurture. New York: Harper Collins.

Stogdill, R.M. (1974). Handbook of Leadership: A Survey of Theory and and Research. New York: Free Press.

Vroom, V.H. (1964). Work and motivation. New York: Wiley.