A Review of Three Leadership Theories: The Situational, The Path-Goal, And The Leader-Member Exchange Theories

by: Abdel Abuisneineh

 Concordia University- Chicago

LDR 6030: Leadership Theories and Professional Practice

Dr. Mixon Ware

May 2014



        There are several prominent theories and models in the leadership literature and this paper is a review three key leadership theories, the situational theory, the path-goal theory, and the leader-member exchange (LMX) theories. The paper will summarize the main scope of each of these theories; evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, and briefly elaborate on their application in different organization settings.

        The main emphasis of this paper is leadership theories as opposed to leadership styles. “Leadership style is modeled after a leader's behaviors, which is encompassed under behaviorist theory. Within this category, different patterns of leadership behavior are observed and then categorized as leadership styles.” (Robertson, n.d.)


Backgrounds of the Theories

        Although the distinct studies of leadership theories have begun only in the past two decades, leading accomplishments of humanity go back to the Egyptian, the Babylon, and the Aztec civilization, thousands of years ago.  These human accomplishments took place under certain leaderships. Gilgamesh and Hammurabi are example of leaders who are being felt 4,000 years later.

        In the primitive society, slave society, and then feudalistic society, most leaders were “imposed” on the society because of certain traits related to their physique (primitive), color and race (slave), tribe/clan or land ownership (feudalism). Look for example at China where in the early feudal age, “Chinese society was based on noble descent and clanship. The nobility and clans were not numerous yet they were separated from the masses and controlled all of the power. The nobility also controlled the armies and filled the offices of the courts. The masses, on the other hand, cultivated their masters’ land, paid taxes, and served as soldiers in the army.” (DeCicco, 2003, p.11).

        The social transformation of the societies to capitalism combined with the emergence of the industrial revolution has created new patterns of “human relationships.” Also, “business leadership as a profession arose during the industrial revolution with the advent of businesses much too large to be managed by a single entrepreneur.” (History of Contingency, n.d.). The new leader does not have to possess certain tribal, physical, or color traits any more. An organization leader can be any one motivated to accomplish the goals of the organization, whether it is to make profit for the organization or anything else. From that point, the concept of scientific management emerged.

        The scientific management that started with Frederick W. Taylor (1856-1915) took several approaches aiming at providing data in scientific formats (measurements for work time, hours, body movement, production, etc.) for managers and leaders to lead and improve organization’s productivity. There was a parallel approach of dealing with leadership and management issues from human relation perspectives. Elton Mayo (1880-1949) capitalized on the Hawthorne Studies and his own research to develop the “human relation” movement in management and leadership.

        Current management theories focus on the premises that leaders can lead better if their follower’s needs are satisfied. There are many theorists that work on developing leadership theories in an attempt to determine the characteristics of leaders that are needed to get the job done in an efficient manner. Cherry (n.d.) classified the many types of leadership theories in to eight categories: Great Man, Trait, Contingency, Situational, Behavioral, Participative, Management, and Relationship theories. Here we will be reviewing only the contingency theory, the transformational leadership theory, and the leader-member exchange (LMX) theory.

        The situational theory assumes that every situation is unique because of the uniqueness of certain variables such as organization type, quality of followers, and leadership type. Success or failure of the leaders is related to the situation. Path-goal leadership theory focuses on the process of motivating followers en route of accomplishing certain goals. The leader-member exchange focuses on the interaction between organization’s leaders and followers, where followers are treated in a collective manner, regardless of their individual differences.


Discussion and Evaluation

        The situational leadership theory was developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard. The Situational theory works under the assumption similar to the adage “different strokes for different folks.”  The theory regards each situation to be unique and may require different leadership methodology. The theory “demands that leaders match their style to the competence and commitment of the subordinate.” (Northouse, 2013, p. 99). In this case, part of the leader’s responsibility is to study and analyze the situation of the folks and use the right combination of ‘leadership strokes.’  On the other hand, the path-goal theory calls for leaders to act on “choosing behavior that complement or supplement what is missing in the work setting,” defining goals, clarifying path, removing obstacles, and providing motivation and support, (Northouse, 2013, p. 137-38). Unlike the previous two theories that look at followers as an aggregate unit, the leader-member exchange theory focuses on treating followers individually and differently, not as a group.

        Leadership theories work differently, each based on its own unique lens and attitude of the surrounding environment. In situational theory, leaders must first determine the level of skill and dependability of the organization members in a particular field of work, or what researchers called “developmental continuum,” and then they need to adjust their leadership techniques in order to exactly match the subordinates’ developmental continuum, (Northouse, 2013, p. 193). Each organization member is dealt with differently. A follower can be at different developmental stages of different assignments and a leader must adapt his/her style accordingly.

        The path-goal theory was developed by Robert House in 1971 and was further developed by House and Mitchell in1974. The theory was inspired by the contribution of Martin Evans, and was also influenced by the 1964 “expectancy theory motivation” which was developed by Victor Vroom. The path-goal theory works differently where the leader can be choosing directive, supportive, participative, or achievement oriented leadership behavior. In organizations where we have complex work nature, unclear organization rules, or dramatically emotional followers; directive leadership may be more appropriate.  For simple, routine, or repetitive tasks; supportive leadership is more pertinent. Participative and achievement oriented leadership styles may better suit decentralized units or organizations with complicated tasks.

         According to Northouse (2013) the leader-member exchange theory was first developed by the works of Dansereau, Graen and Haga (1975), Graen and Cashman (1975), and Graen (1976). The theory classifies subordinates into two different categories, in-group and out-group. In-group associates are more cooperative and are more willing to accept more responsibilities than their out-group counterparts who are not willing to do more than what their job-description dictates. For that reason, in-group members are the “preferred choice” of leaders, the group that can be counted on in building alliances for change. The leader-member exchange model suggests that leaders must work on connecting with out group members to build trust and respect and make them feel that they are part of the organization.


Strengths and Weaknesses of Leadership Theories

        “Different strokes for different folks,” the foundation of the situational theory seems to be so flexible when it comes to considering differences among followers. While most other theories are descriptive in nature, the situational theory tells us what to do and what not to do, a clear prescriptive nature of that theory that makes it easily understood, intuitive, and appealing. Situational leadership is “a factor in training programs of more than 400 of the Fortune 500 companies. It is perceived by corporations as offering a credible model for training people to become effective leaders,” (Northouse, 2013, p. 105).  The main weakness of this theory is the limited research provided to validate it and to substantiate its underlining hypotheses (Blank, Weitzel, and Green, 1990, p. 579). Furthermore, authorities in situational leadership do not provide clarity when it comes to theorizing the elements of development (competence and commitment) among followers, and how these elements are incorporated in the unclear process of matching the leadership style with the development level of groups.  Situational theory does not concern itself with the demographic differences among the followers and their effect on leadership, despite the presence of research studies showing otherwise.

        The unique feature of the path-goal theory is its focus on the inclusion of followers’ motivation as well as how leaders’ behaviors affect followers’ satisfaction level and performance results.  Those and other features make the theory realistic in its presentation of how the elements of the model work to assist leaders in serving their followers.  Despite that, empirical studies do not substantiate the validity of this model which encompasses several confusing and vague elements.  The theory approaches the leadership concept as a one-way street where leaders “help” followers without any sort of dynamics. While motivation is a core concept of this theory, the model does not provide any explanation how motivation is correlated to certain styles, (i.e. the directive style.)

        When it comes to the leader-member exchange, a major portion of research studies have substantiated the positive correlation between the implementation of the theory and positive organizational results. The bilateral “dyadic” relationship between followers and leaders makes the theory exceptionally useful in stressing the importance of communication and exchange of trust and commitment. The theory, further, enhances the leader awareness of the possible and damaging bias against certain out-group members, although some leaders may find themselves unable to avoid the bias and develop patterns of favoritism and discriminatory practices against the out group individuals that the theory supports but does not set procedures to avoid the negative practices.  Other arguments concerning the weakness of the leader member exchange is that the core ideas of the theory are not fully developed and that accurate measurements of the bilateral relationship (dyads) between leaders and members are not set, (Northouse, 2013, p. 171).


Theory Applications

        Situational theory is one of the most used leadership theories that can be applied with remarkable flexibility by different types of organizations at different organizational levels. Situational leadership theory is perhaps the best to use during the initial stages of new ventures where followers’ experiences vary over time.

        While path-goal theory is less popular than other theories it provides clear methods that allow leaders to determine the levels of their subordinates, and thus make the proper recommendation about what style to follow.

        Similar to the path-goal theory, the leader member exchange theory has never been offered as a separate training package for leaders. However, the leader member exchange theory provides great understanding of networks and groups within the organization and the benefits and risks associated in dealing with individuals in the in-group and the out-group. The theory can be used in all types of profit and non-for-profit organizations.

        One of the major issues pertaining to the applicability of all leadership theories is culture. Much of the literature we study here and there was produced in countries that have experienced the industrial revolution and lived the full “capitalistic” experience.  The development of leadership and the meaning people attribute to leaders and leadership are affected by culture.  Alves, Manz and Butterfield (2005) indicated that “most Western leadership research, which suffers from a North American bias, may not have much relevance to explain leadership in other cultures,” (p. 11). Jogulu (2010) found "significant differences between leadership styles and cultural groups, hence, supporting the argument that culture and leadership interact in different ways in diverse contexts," (p. 705).



         The “science” of studying leadership and leadership theories has emerged as an independent discipline in the 20th century although stories of leadership traits were evident thousands of years ago in religious holy scriptures or in tales of ancient civilizations. There are many leadership theories today, each focusing on different aspects of leadership, each with distinct features and applications. Each of these theories has its pros and cons. Some are better than others in certain situations or with certain subordinates, or in describing or prescribing what is good or not so good for the leader to be or do. A major caution is required when dealing with applying these theories to individuals and organizations in different cultures. Studies indicate that bias does exist in the ways people perceive leaders and leadership.

        The bulk of theories speak of skills that must be possessed by leaders to succeed, solidifying the opinion that leadership traits can be acquired and may be learned in certain settings. 

        While leadership theories are titled differently, many of the underlining skills are shared by all theories.  Some of these theories can be used as a total system for training purposes, while others can be used to supplement or compliment leadership skills.


        Alves, J. C., Manz, C. C. and Butterfield, D. A. (2005). Developing leadership theory in Asia: The role of Chinese philosophy. International Journal of Leadership Studies, 1 (1), 3-27.

        Blank, W., Weitzel, J.R., and Green, S. G. (1990). A test of the situational leadership theory. Personnel Psychology, 579-597. Retrieved on 5/17/2014 from http://people.wku.edu/richard.miller/Weitzel%20Green.pdf

        Cherry, K. (n.d.). Leadership theories: The 8 major leadership theories. Retrieved on 5/17/2014 from http://psychology.about.com/od/leadership/p/leadtheories.htm

        DeCicco, J. (2003). The development of leaders in ancient China, Rome, and Persia. Florida Atlantic University. Retrieved on 5/18/2014 from http://tppserver.mit.edu/esd801/readings/AncientLeaders.pdf

        History of contingency theories of leadership. (n.d.). Retrieved on 5/17/2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_contingency_theories_of_leadership#cite_note-1

        Jogulu, U. D. (2010). Culturally-linked leadership styles. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 1 (8), 705-719. Retrieved  on 5/17/2014 from http://www.uc.edu/content/dam/uc/honors/docs/Leadership%20Documents/Culturally-linked%20Leadership%20Styles.pdf

        Robertson, T. (n.d.) Leadership theory vs. leadership style. Houston Chronicle. Retrieved on 5/12/2014 from http://smallbusiness.chron.com/leadership-theory-vs-leadership-style-32967.html

        Northouse, P.G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice, (6th ed.) Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

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