Matthew K. Ohs
Successful leaders deliver results, often through change. Change also forces leaders to navigate through the uncertainties that it brings. Guiding a team through a process or period of change can be a difficult task and a true test of a leader’s abilities. Results determine the perceptions of a leader: success is tied to the strength of leadership, failure to a perceived lack of it. Effective leaders work through change by focusing on behaviors that encourage team growth and success.
A team’s characteristics and tasks help determine a leader’s most effective management style and behaviors. According to Northouse (2016), Path – Goal Theory allows a leader to ensure their team reaches its goals by using certain behaviors and approaches best suited to the followers’ collective needs, motivations, and skill gaps (p. 115). These behaviors include actions that are directive, supportive, participative, and achievement-oriented, with the most successful behavior dependent on what the followers need most for success. In short, Path – Goal Theory allows a leader to lead a team by defining goals, clarifying a path forward, eliminating obstacles, and providing support along the way (p. 116). These actions ensure that a team has all of the motivation it needs and that a leader can utilize different styles to overcome a variety of obstacles.
The nature of an obstacle and the makeup of a team determines the most effective leadership behavior. Teams which follow rigid guidelines and procedures rely on a directive approach to tackle ambiguous, unclear, and complex obstacles. These behaviors provide clear leadership and expectations even when tasks are vague or undefined. Supportive behaviors are needed when regular work is repetitive and mundane, leaving workers unenthused and unsatisfied. These actions nurture followers in the face of unfulfilling work. Participative behaviors emphasize a leader’s dedication to tackling vague, undefined, and unstructured problems as a team. Through collaboration, a leader helps a team work through an obstacle together. Finally, achievement-oriented behaviors help teams with high expectations and a need for achievement to overcome complex challenges (Northouse, p. 121). A wise leader will choose behaviors best suited to help a team complete work in its preferred manner and style.
Path – Goal Theory Application
First Congregational Church enjoys a high level of success through the leadership of its Senior Pastor Kelly. After her decade at the helm, the church is the largest traditional Protestant congregation in its mid-sized city. She guides a successful capital campaign, encourages renovations to the historic building, and retires all church debt. The congregation of 1,300 is very grateful for her directive leadership and the accomplishments it brings.
Three months after Pastor Kelly retires all church debt, everything changes. She becomes ill and steps away to focus on her health. The church’s leadership council and operational boards are unsure of how to proceed and face difficult decisions: how will the church function without Pastor Kelly’s steady, experienced leadership? Who will guide the congregation through the challenging times ahead? What identity will the church have without her as its pastor? Facing few options after Kelly’s unexpected retirement, the leadership council appoints Associate Pastor James as Acting Senior Pastor for the duration of the search committee process.
Pastor James assists Pastor Kelly with much of the church’s mission work. In his early thirties, he brings a youthful energy to his outreach ministry and sermons, often incorporating guitar, singing, and pop culture references. He is well-liked by younger members of the church for his participation in activities, but older members of the traditional congregation believe he still needs to mature as a leader.
As the transition unfolds, the church begins to face unfamiliar obstacles. Membership doesn’t outright fall, but both Sunday attendance and giving decline significantly. First, the early worship service is eliminated, and then other church functions are reduced to meet the realities of its budget. Board attendance also declines and regular meetings are scheduled more infrequently. James knows he will have to act fast to inspire change within the congregation and turn the situation around.
As a Congregationalist assembly, the church is ultimately governed by its members in a leadership council and three boards focusing on outreach work, member support, and finance. Each focus is different and relies on having the right members to complete the work. James directs the council to hire an experienced administrator as Interim Associate Pastor and informs the congregation at large that he does not wish to be considered as a candidate for the church’s next senior leader. Free from this delicate situation, James begins guiding the congregation towards answering the questions of identity and vision that plague them during this time of uncertain change.
James approaches each board and asks that they invite all who wanted to be involved to join and also asks them to redefine their roles and set new goals. Who do you want to be as a church, and what do you wish to accomplish, he asks? He alters his schedule to be able to attend each meeting for guidance, often with his family there with him. Younger and new members volunteer to help him with the extra workload of running the church, and the congregation comes together in new ways. Even though the between-service coffee hour is canceled, families take turns baking and serving refreshments each week. Fundraising becomes a community effort rather than the work of a small, dedicated committee. When the church reaches its fundraising goals, the entire congregation celebrates its achievement together. Outside groups ask to be involved with outreach ministry efforts, which the church welcomes. A local Hispanic church offers to provide a weekly meal for both congregations to attend. The congregation organizes a block party to showcase the church as the heart of downtown, which features James and his guitar as the main entertainment.
After 18 months of building community ties, redefining their missions, and expanding the church’s perception of itself, all three boards jointly ask the church council to again consider James for Senior Pastor. When he is approached with an offer, he stuns the congregation by declining. He has no interest in running the church and wants to stay in his former role as outreach minister. He encourages the search committee to look again at its vision and to compare it with what the congregation has accomplished and become during the transition. Several months later, the church welcomes a new Senior Pastor and James resumes his work in outreach and youth ministry, this time enjoying the full support of church elders.
As the chair of the finance committee and a representative on the overall church council during these events, this author experienced the effective application of Path – Goal Theory in a complex congregation. Pastor James is successful at leading the church through a difficult transition because he adapts his leadership style to fit the different needs of its governing committees. By involving himself with each team, he understands the unique obstacles they face and learns to change his behaviors to help all succeed. He ensures that each team has the tools it needs to complete its work, that he helps in reducing or eliminating all obstacles, and that he approaches them with a style that works.
Leaders are seldom expected to maintain the status quo. Change remains a constant, and leaders are required to successfully navigate the challenges that it brings. Likewise, leaders are required to effectively counter any resistance that accompanies it. Path – Goal Theory allows leaders to deliver positive results and value through adaptive behaviors, especially during periods of uncertainty and change.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: theory and practice (7th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.