Exceptional leadership is not only about how leaders achieve their individual goals. It also has a lot to do with how great leaders assist their team members in achieving their goals. In fact, true leaders often show the right path to their followers so that followers can accomplish their objectives. This is exactly the idea around which the path-goal theory of leadership is centered.

For the very first time, the theory was introduced by Martin Evans in the year 1970 and was further refined by House in the year 1971. Basically, the theory finds its inspiration in the Expectancy Theory of 1964 which is attributed to Victor Vroom. As per the Expectancy Theory, individuals feel highly motivated about their performance and consistency when they know that their expectations of recognition and reward are most likely to be met.

Moving forward, the fundamental assumption on which this theory is based states that great leaders offer well-defined paths to their employees or followers so that the followers can accomplish their goals. Besides, leaders complement their followers and also assist them in navigating any obstacles that may stand in the pursuit of goal achievement.

The other paramount characteristics of the theory are given below.

Key features of the Path-Goal Theory of Leadership

Path goal theory of leadership

1. Another important aspect that the theory highlights is that a leader’s behavior is highly determined by the engagement, satisfaction, and efficiency of followers. Having said that, in different situations and as per variations in the satisfaction of employees, leaders as per the theory, need to be flexible to adapt to different leadership approaches as the situation demands.

2. As per the theory, it is viewed as a salient job on the part of the leaders to help their employees or members choose the most appropriate path that can lead to the accomplishment of individual and organizational goals. Leaders rely on various motivational theories to help their employees achieve their goals.

3. The Path-Goal Theory of Leadership defines four different types of leadership behaviors that leaders can subscribe to as per different situations contingent on employee productivity

These four types of behaviors are mentioned below.

  • Supportive: Leaders show great empathy toward employees and support them in dealing with their personal problems that contribute to efficiency issues. Besides, leaders try to make the work environment optimistic and treat employees with the utmost respect to boost employee motivation.

  • Participative: leaders consult employees in the course of the important decision-making processes within the organization. Leaders encourage employees to put in additional effort to achieve their goals by making them feel valued. Also, they lay emphasis on creating a sense of belonging in the workplace.

  • Achievement Oriented: As per this behavior of leadership corresponding to the Path-Goal Theory, leaders are keen on setting challenging objectives for their employees and also show trust in their ability to handle unprecedented challenges. Employers lay emphasis on the development of achievement-oriented behaviors among employees.

  • Directive: Leaders direct employees or followers and provide clearly defined guidelines for them to excel in the goals that are vital to the organization. Also, leaders clearly lay out what is expected of employees to foster a great understanding of roles and responsibilities among employees. Leaders work in accordance with well-established structures to help employees overcome any sort of ambiguity. Moreover, leaders also define the relationship between goal accomplishment and the rewards linked accomplishment of SMART Goals.

Relevance of the theory in the contemporary corporate world

If we look at how the workplace demographics are changing, millennials and Gen Z employees now represent a significant part of the workforce in most nations. In fact, as per the workplace demographics trends, 75 percent of the global workforce will comprise millennials by 2025. For leaders, it is important to understand that millennials and Gen Z workers associate great importance with guidance, assistance from supervisors, feedback sharing, and rewards. Also, these working generations are likely to get slightly confused in the absence of direction or support from superiors.

Having said that, by applying this theory, leaders can get the best out of their millennial and Gen Z employees who lack effective experience. Leaders can complement them in setting goals and defining the best paths for achieving those goals. Moreover, leaders can clearly define the key performance indicators that give a measure of employees’ performance so that there is no confusion. In this way, employers can overcome the challenges of high disengagement and turnover in millennial employees as well as Gen Z employees. When leaders offer support, direction, new challenges, and empathy to young employees, they can get the best out of them in the best interest of the organization.

With this leadership style, leaders can utilize their experience in a great way and add great value to their employees' development to help them achieve the goals that are crucial for the organization. This makes path-goal theory one of the most practical and effective leadership theories in the contemporary workplace.

A real-world example of path-goal theory leadership

Sunder Pichai leadership style analysis

Sunder Pichai leadership style analysis

The most successful business organizations are those where leaders are highly engaged in showing the right path to their teams and love to be a part of their team’s success. How can the mention of enormously successful organizations not include Google? Currently, the market capitalization of Google stands at an astounding value of USD 1.89 trillion. The company’s success largely revolves around Sundar Pichai’s leadership excellence ever since he took over as the CEO of Google in 2015. If we statistically look at what Sundar Pichai has done for Google, as per Statista, the company’s revenue witnessed a massive increase from USD 74.5 billion in 2015 to USD 256.7 billion in the year 2021 reaching its highest ever. In fact, ever since Sundar Pichai took over in 2015, the revenue of the company has only increased every year taking the company toward new heights.

Undoubtedly, there are endless leadership lessons to learn from Sundar Pichai but what stands out is his ability to look beyond himself and contribute to the success of his employees. He believes in creating strong teams within the company and for that, he helps his employees set realistic goals and also helps them in determining the right path to the accomplishment of these goals. He is always ready to play the role of a mentor to show the right path to his employees walking on which they can achieve personal and organizational success. To add, he is always willing to go the extra mile to not only help his employees achieve great outcomes but also ensures that their achievements are celebrated with great rewards and recognition.

Probing further, Sundar Pichai functions in accordance with meritocracy. As per different levels of meritocracy among employees, he brings adjustments in his leadership styles. He has introduced a strong culture of open communication in the company and is constantly looking to motivate employees to incorporate integrity, work ethics, innovation, intellect, risk-taking, and curiosity. He is always happy to complement his employees or associates in the pursuit of meeting crucial goals. As a leader, he recognizes his responsibility toward guiding his employees in the right direction and assisting them in the pursuit of their goals.

In the literal sense, he brings the path-goal theory of leadership to life. Consequently, given his support to his employees for succeeding in endeavors, the company’s employees look up to him with great respect and idolize his qualities to drive success in their careers. His enthusiasm in terms of seeing his people succeed and his eagerness to help them overcome obstacles set the right template for young leaders who aspire to take top positions in diverse companies like Google.

To conclude, because of his brilliance as a leader and mentor, Google has been highly successful as a diverse organization. He has a progressive approach as a leader and his ability to look beyond his individual interests is what makes him a people’s leader.


How does the Path-Goal Theory impact follower motivation?

The Path-Goal Theory suggests that when leaders provide guidance, support, and rewards based on followers' needs, it enhances their motivation. Effective leadership helps followers perceive a clear path to achieve their goals, making the journey more rewarding and satisfying.

Can leaders use multiple leadership behaviors from the Path-Goal Theory?

Yes, leaders can use a combination of different leadership behaviors from the Path-Goal Theory, depending on the situation and the needs of their followers. Being flexible and adaptive allows leaders to provide the right support at the right time.