Friday, December 10, 2010

High Sights and the Path-Goal Theory of Leadership

In one of my college classes I had the task of writing a paper on a Communication Theory and then applying that Theory to an Organization. Being a mountaineer I wanted to apply a Theory to Team Sight Unseen, however when I started researching I found that there weren't enough references telling about TSU for me to make an A worthy paper. Since this was my first big time college paper I wanted to make an A and prove to myself that i could hang with the juniors and seniors (I was one of only 2-3 freshman in the class).
So I wrote my paper on the Path-Goal Theory of Leadership and applied it to High Sights...And yes I got an A on it. The paper is basically about...Well I'll let you read it.

Climb High,
Kyle Coon


Kyle Coon

COM 3120

University of Central Florida


In this paper we will discuss the path-goal theory of leadership and how it applies to High Sights (a general name we've given the team that Erik Weihenmayer was a part of that reached the summit of Everest in May 2001). We will also discuss the various leaders that stepped up on the High Sights team and how their actions were beneficial to the team as a whole. The strengths and weaknesses of the path-goal theory of leadership will also be noted and how they can be improved as well as an add on/alternate way of viewing the path-goal theory of leadership.

How does someone handle the pressures of planning organizing and executing a successful mountaineering expedition to Mt Everest? How does someone handle the additional pressure of leading a totally blind mountaineer on said expedition? How does a team deal with the criticism of the world at large for thinking about taking a blind climber up the tallest mountain on earth? The answer...Having a vision, and having a strong team to carry out that vision along a path guided by strong leaders that will ensure the goal is reached.

Path-Goal Theory of Leadership:

The Path-Goal Theory of Leadership was developed/coined by Robert House in 1971. The path-goal theory indicates that the leader can positively inspire the performance, contentment, and motivation of employees by (1) clarifying the path on how to achieve performance goals; (2) bestowing reward for achieving these goals; and (3) removing obstacles that are stopping employees from achieving these goals (House and Mitchell, 1974). And those leaders who show the way and help followers along a path to reach those specified goals are effectively leading (House, 1997). And also according to the theory, leadership behavior tends to be directive, supportive, participative, or achievement-oriented (Evans and House, 1996).

But what does all of this mean? What is leadership and it's various forms?


Leadership, at the most basic level, is essentially the ability to influence other people. But how a leader influences those people (followers) is generally separated into four main forms of leadership: supportive, directive, participative, and achievement-oriented (Evans and House, 1996).

Supportive leadership can be taken at face value. The leader essentially "supports" his/her followers by showing concern for the follower's welfare and creating a safe and friendly working environment (Evans and House, 1996). This type of leadership technique might be useful during times of high stress or danger where a leader can encourage the follower to push through the project.

Directive leadership occurs when the leader spells out specifically what he/she wants their followers to do. The leader could potentially draw up lists of tasks to be completed by each member of a team and give dates when he expects those steps of the project done. This technique lends structure and can break down complex projects down into more manageable tasks thereby making the loads a little easier on the followers.

Participative leadership is when the leader may seek advice or ideas from his followers/team. The leader then combines the ideas of his followers with his own to accomplish the project. This technique is probably best in cases where the leader is head of a team of experts whose opinions are sought and who expect to be asked for advice.

Achievement-Oriented leadership occurs when a leader has great faiTh in his followers. The leader sets challenging goals, in work or self-improvement (and maybe even both together) and holds his followers to high standards and expected based on past demonstrations. The leader has great confidence in his followers and expects they will get their jobs done in an efficient and timely manner. (Evans and House, 1996).

But given these leadership techniques/styles, what makes an effective leader? What traits must leaders have in order to be good leaders? And what does being a leader mean without a team and a goal?

Lifetime mountaineer and motivational speaker Eric Alexander has a very simple definition of leadership that captures the crucial parts of being an effective leader. Leadership equals Vision plus Action divided by Character (Alexander).

Vision. To be an effective leader of a team a leader must have a vision, a goal, something to strive for. Without this goal a leader has nothing to inspire his followers/team members to follow him.

Action. An effective leader must be able to inspire his followers and himself to take action to reach his vision. He must put their feet upon the "path" and help them along it to reach their "goal".

Character. An effective leader must have the character and conscience to know the difference between right and wrong, to determine the safest, wisest and most beneficial course that will lead he and his followers to reaching their goal.

But a leader is not a leader unless he has followers. And he can not have followers without a team. This team must be built with different people each with different strengths. If a team is built with everyone having the same strength then the team will be unable to reach the goal that their leader has set before them if they run into an obstacle along the way that proves to be everyone's weakness. So, as an effective leader, it is the leaders job to remove these obstacles by building a strong team with each member having a strength where another member has a weakness. And this is precisely what Erik Weihenmayer did in forming "High Sights".

Erik Weihenmayer and High Sights:

As a young boy Erik Weihenmayer was diagnosed with Retinoschisis, a rare eye disease typically seen in older adults that causes the retina to detach from the center of the pupil p eventually to split altogether (Weihenmayer). Weihenmayer's vision slowly deteriorated over the course of his young life until he reached age thirteen when he became totally blind. Weihenmayer battled with blindness for a number of years insisting that he wasn't blind, that he could do things just as well as any sighted person that he didn't need help. Finally, one day on his way home from school, the driver of a van carrying handicapped students got sick of hearing Weihenmayer complaining. The driver ordered Weihenmayer out of the car and then threw a basketball off the side of Weihenmayer's head. In no uncertain terms the driver explained to Weihenmayer that he was blind and needed to learn to accept help when needed, if he did he "might just learn to catch again" (Weihenmayer).

Weihenmayer attended a month long skills camp at the Carol Center for the Blind in Boston Massachusetts where he learned numerous techniques to help him get through everyday life. But while at the Carol Center Weihenmayer was exposed to the thing that would shape the rest of his life...Rock Climbing. Weihenmayer became fascinated with rock climbing and pursued it as a challenge both physically and mentally. After he graduated from college and took up a teaching position at Phoenix Country Day School in Phoenix, Arizona, Weihenmayer became increasingly drawn to the outdoors. Throughout his college life Weihenmayer, his father and brothers went on long distance hiking trips ranging from the highlands of Peru to the glaciers of the Karakoram, to the forests of Irian Jaya.

A fellow teacher at the Phoenix Country Day School, Sam Bridges, became Weihenmayer's weekend climbing partner. And on one weekend climb in the desert Sam suggested to Weihenmayer that they try something "a little bigger...maybe Mt McKinley" (Weihenmayer). And thus, the foundation for High Sights were set.

In 1995, Erik Weihenmayer, Sam Bridges, Chris Morris and Jeff Evans, reached the summit of Mt McKinley, 20320 feet, tallest peak in North America. In 1997, Weihenmayer reached the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro at 19340 feet, the tallest peak in Africa. Slowly but surely, Weihenmayer began to gather around himself a strong and dedicated team. Over the course of the next several years Weihenmayer reached the summits of Aconcagua (22841 feet, tallest peak in South America), Vinson Massif (16050 feet, tallest peak in Antarctica), Mt Everest (29035 feet, tallest peak in Asia/the World), Mt Elbrus (18510 feet, tallest peak in Europe), Kosciuszko (7310 feet, tallest peak in Australia), and Carstens Pyramid (16024 feet, tallest peak on the Oceanic Continental Shelf) (Stoltz and Weihenmayer). By successfuly climbing and summitting these peaks Erik Weihenmayer became the first blind man to successfully climb the "7 Summits" (tallest peak on each of the 7 continents) on both the Bass and Mesner lists which depict which mountain is highest on each continent (Stoltz and Weihenmayer).

However, despite Weihenmayer's great achievements in mountaineering he did not do it alone. Throughout the years since he started doing big climbs Weihenmayer's gathered about himself a very strong and very dedicated team of climbers whom he trusts to help guide him to these lofty summits. The team has numerous names depending on their expedition, but on the whole we will refer to this team as "High Sights".

Path-Goal Theory Applied to High Sights:

On May 25, 2001, Erik Weihenmayer became the first blind person to climb and summit Mt Everest (29035 feet). In the years prior to this Weihenmayer spent training and climbing with many partners and in 1999-2000 Weihenmayer had selected those whom he wished to climb with on the most daring and challenging of his expeditions to date, Chomolungma (Goddess Mother of the Earth), more commonly known z...Mt Everest.

Weihenmayer was first given the idea of climbing Everest by Pasquale Scaturro who'd heard of Weihenmayer's previous climbs and who'd summitted Everest himself and was wanting to lead a second expedition to the mountain. Weihenmayer and Scaturro (better known as "PV" to his team) began putting together a team of strong climbers who would be able to work well together and who would give the "TEAM" the best chance at success (Weihenmayer). (For now we will consider PV as the team's "designated" expedition leader and Weihenmayer as the Public Relations Manager.)

Organizing a mountaineering expedition is a complicated headache at best. But PV exemplified the Leadership formula outlined earlier in this paper when it came to expedition organization and management. Vision--to successfully lead a team of climbers to the summit of Mt Everest with one of those climbers being the first blind man to summit Everest. Action--PV was action embodied. According to Weihenmayer, PV thrived on planning and organizing large expeditions (Weihenmayer). Prior to the trip PV's garage was filled with plastic bins of freeze dried meals, oxallygen bottles and masks, tents, etc (Stoltz and Weihenmayer). PV also organized the training climbs and permits. On the mountain it was PV's decision who carried what loads and whether to turn continue on up the mountain or turn back, or to just stay put. Character--The ability to make the right decisions for the good of the whole team was put to the test very early in the team's existence. On a training climb of Ama da Blamm, PV was in a rocky gully with three other climbers trying to push the route higher through the high winds of the Monsoons which had blown in a month earlier than predicted (Weihenmayer). PV made the decision to turn the whole team around and descend giving up the summit rather than risking lives trying to just stand on top. And while on summit night on Mt Everest, PV's character came through again when he turned himself around when his feet began to freeze, but rather than being selfish and turning the whole team around he turned himself around and descended while encouraging his teammates to push on (Alexander).

While PV grappled with the logistics of leading an Everest expedition, Weihenmayer was fighting a public relations war with the many detractors who thought it wasn't possible, or that it was suicide for a blind climber to attempt Mt Everest. Premier American Himalayan veteran climber Ed Viesturs said that `I wouldn't want to take [Erik] up there myself. Because he can't see he can't assess the weather or the ice-fall or the ladders you have to crawl across. With Erik they'll have to be helping him...every step of the way. For me the risks are too great` (Weihenmayer). "In most people's minds, the notion of a blind climber is equivalent to that of a Jamaican bobsledder. At first it's hard to connect the two." (Weihenmayer). Then once the team turned around on Ama da Blamm failing to reach the summit, many pointed out that Everest was much higher and harder than Ama da Blamm so how could the team expect to reach the summit? However, Weihenmayer and PV and the rest of the team decided to throw everyone's doubts out the window and go to Everest anyway (Weihenmayer). Weihenmayer secured sponsorship from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) for the expedition and with a strong competent team went to tackle Mt Everest.

While on the mountain it was difficult for PV or Weihenmayer to always be the only leaders. At times others needed to step up and fill the role of leader. On a mountaineering expedition it's much more difficult to bare the burden of leadership alone than it is to share it. In a way the leader(s) of a mountaineering team need to part take a participative leadership role, discussing options with their teammates and analyzing the best methods and strategies to push the route higher. But the leader0s) must also show characteristics of Supportive, Directive, p Achievement-Oriented leadership as well.

On summit night, PV turned around and descended rather than risk losing his feet, life and the lives of his teammates. From high camp PV took on a Supportive leadership role as he encouraged and motivated his teammates to keep pushing on. When a storm blew in trapping the team at 27600 feet on the "Balcony" everyone congregated and debated on the best course of action while PV and others from below monitored the weather. Finally it was decided that the team would push on since the storm wasn't expected to last. Jeff Evans, and Sherm and Brad Bull climbed higher towards the South Summit, a point about a two hour journey from the true summit. When all of a sudden they found their way blocked.

The ropes the climbers had been following split and went in two different directions. One set of ropes traveled up through a field of nasty slippery rock "the kind where [one] takes two steps forward and one step back" (Evans). While the other set of ropes traveled up through a more gentle tgrain, but so ropes ! buried beneath two feet of snow from an avalanche. Here is where Jeff Evans had to make a decision whether to go the easy way for him and the hard way for Erik, or the hard way for him and the easy way for Erik (Evans). And so Jeff and Brad dug out the ropes up the easier terrain. Finally, they reached the South Summit and Weihenmayer followed with the rest of the team. Then as Jeff prepared to descend he watched as Weihenmayer began trekking towards the top of the world, and even though he was exhausted from clearing the ropes he was blown away by what he was watching. And so Evans fell into step behind Weihenmayer and together they stood on top of the world (Evans).

In total, 19 out of 21 climbers from the team reached the summit of Everest from their team (11 of 13 Westerners and 8 Sherpas) making it the largest number of people from any team, ever, to summit Mt Everest. Sherm Bull became, at the time, the oldest man to summit Mt Everest at age 64. Sherm and Brad Bull became the first Father-Son pair to summit Mt Everest together. And Erik Weihenmayer became the first blind man to stand atop the world's highest peak (Weihenmayer).

The team had a Vision of standing on top of Mt Everest. Designated leaders such as PV helped make that Vision possible through their Actions, such as planning and organizing the training climbs and expedition logistics. The leader can positively inspire the performance, contentment, and motivation of employees by (1) clarifying the path on how to achieve performance goals; (2) bestowing reward for achieving these goals; and (3) removing obstacles that are stopping employees from achieving these goals (House and Mitchell, 1974). PV (the leader) was able to positively influence the members of the team (employees) by working hard and showing he had the interests of the whole team in mind. PV and Weihenmayer helped instill the Vision (clarifying the path on how to achieve performance goals) and through their Actions and encouragement set everyone's feet on the right path towards reaching their goal. Each time the team reached a higher camp or trekked safely through the Ahumbu Ice-Fall (the most dangerous part of Mt Everest), it was a reward to still be alive and climbing higher and higher. PV removed obstacles by taking on a large portion of the organization by himself thereby freeing up the members of the team to train harder and therefore be better prepared for the harsh conditions encountered on Everest. Jeff Evans and Brad Bull took it upon themselves to remove the obstacle of the buried ropes leading up to the South Summit. If they hadn't Weihenmayer could have, quite conceivably, been too exhausted to continue on past the South Summit if he'd had to climb through the terrain in which one takes two steps forward, only to take one step back, which tears even the best of climbers up (Evans). Through this selflessness Evans and Bull showed the Character part of the leadership equation better than anyone else. They had their Vision in sight, they were taking immediate Action to reach that Vision, and they had the Character and selflessness to potentially sacrifice their summit bid so that Erik Weihenmayer could summit. Weihenmayer bore the burden of being blind and by working hard he whittled off the time it took him to travel through the Khumbu Ice-Fall. On Weihenmayer's first time through the ice-fall it took him more than 13 hours, on his final trip through the river of ever shifting ice, it took him about 5 hours (Weihenmayer). Through these actions Weihenmayer proved that he and his teammates weren't completely crazy because this improvement showed that each and every teammate could improve over the course of the trip and therefore reach the summit.

There were many examples of the path-goal theory of leadership demonstrated by Weihenmayer, PV, Jef Evans, Brad Bull, Eric Alexander, and the many others that climbed and summitted Mt Everest on that team. And without those displays of leadership, without the Vision, the Action, and the Character of those leaders, the team would have ultimately failed and nobody would have summitted. Instead through great displays of leadership, and even greater displays of teamwork, 19 of 21 climbers from the Team summitted Mt Everest.


The path-goal theory of leadership indicates that the leader can positively inspire the performance, contentment, and motivation of employees by (1) clarifying the path on how to achieve performance goals; (2) bestowing reward for achieving these goals; and (3) removing obstacles that are stopping employees from achieving these goals (House and Mitchell, 1974). We've tried to embody this ksst a simle Leadership equals Vision plus Action divided by Character equation that embodies the idea of having a goal, moving along a path to reach that goal and having the character to make the best decisions along that path towards reaching that goal. According to the theory, leadership behavior tends to be directive, supportive, participative, or achievement-oriented (Evans and House, 1996). However, as indicated previously in this paper it's best to have some combination of two or more of these leadership techniques in order to get the best results from the followers/team members and even better to share the leadership roles with other members of the team.

Problems and Suggesttions:

Despite how it's been presented here there are a number of shortcomings with the path-goal theory of leadership. For instance, this theory assumes that the leader, for the most part, is all knowing all powerful and knows what is best. In some cases this might be true, in most however no one person can accomplish everything by him or herself. Some may argue that climbing a mountain may not be the best example of how the path-goal theory is best presented since there are climbers who have successfully "soloed" many mountains. This is also a perfectly valid point as Reinhold Mesner proved in 1980 that a single person could climb and summit Mt Everest withht the use of supplemental oxygen and alone (Krakauer). And in 1977, Jon Krakauer soloed the Devil's Thumb, a 6000 piece of rock and ice in Alaska that demands extreme technical rock and ice climbst skills as well as backcountry mountaineering skills to climb (Krakauer). However, in most cases when people climb challenging mountains they do so in a team, which typically requires one or more people to step up as leaders.

Since this theory assumes the leader is all powerful and knowing, it also slightly devalues teamwork, except in the case of when participative leadership is in use. Leaders shine brightest when they help to lead a team through difficult times but that leader shines brightly because of the work of his teammates and because the teammates look to him as their leader.

This theory also doesn't emphasize the "vision" (goal) or "character" part of being a leader as well as the Leadership equation. The path-goal theory indicates that there is a goal and a path to reach that goal, but what it fails to do is stay focused on that ultimate goal while at the same time breaking that goal into smaller and smaller goals. "Vision" is the ability to see the big picture but also to break the big picture down into smaller and smaller details. The leader inspires the followers to reach the small goals in order to reach the ultimate one. For example, Erik Weihenmayer's ultimate goal was the 7 Summits, but first he needed to focus on the smaller goals of reaching the top of each rock face, and smaller mountain before he could attempt the bigger and tougher mountains. On Everest itself the team had to remain focused on first getting to basecamp, then through the Khumbu ice-fall, then to Camp I, and so on until summit night.

And finally, the "Character" of the leader is vital. Is the leader a good enough character to make the best decisions for the team o a whole or will he just make the decisions that benefit himself? If PV had continued climbing on summit night just to try and summit Mt Everest a second time, he might have succeeded, but it would have been at the price of possibly losing his feet to frostbite and having his teammates rescue him and carry him down from the summit when they were exhausted. And if PV had not summitted but still kept climbing and had suffered frostbite none of his teammates would have summitted and therefore none of them would have reached the ultimate goal. The same goes for Jeff Evans and Brad Bull when making the decision to dig out the ropes leading up to the South Summit.

No matter where we look examples of the path-goal theory of leadership can be seen. Almost any athletic team, collegeate or professional could be an example. Any business or political genius as well. It might be interesting to apply the path-goal theory to a Coach or Quarterback in the National Football League, or to the Star Pitcher of a Major League Baseball Team, or even to the political spectrum with Abraham Lincoln and his "Team of Rivals" helping him in the election of 1860. Or even take any branch of the military at any time in any war. Every great leader has a "Vision". Every great leader has the ability to take "Action" And every great leader has the "Character" to decide what he/she thinks is best for Their followers. These leaders are able to positively inspire the performance, contentment, and motivation of employees by (1) clarifying the path on how to achieve performance goals; (2) bestowing reward for achieving these goals; and (3) removing obstacles that are stopping employees from achieving these goals (Vision, Action, Character) (House and Mitchell, 1974) through a combination of supportive, directive, participative, and achievement-oriented leadership behavior (Evans and House, 1996).


Alexander, Eric (2010). The Summit. Green Forest, AR New Leaf Publishing Group

Evans, Jeff (2007). MountainVision Lessons Beyond The Summit. Boulder, CO MountainVision Inc

House, R. J. (1971). A path-goal theory of leader effectiveness. Administrative Science Quarterly, 16, 321-339.

House, R. J. (1997). Path-goal theory of leadership: Lessons, legacy, and a reformulated theory. Leadership Quarterly, 7 (3), 323-352.

House, R. J. and Mitchell, R. R. (1974). Path-goal theory of leadership. Journal of Contemporary Business, 3, 81-97.

Krakauer, Jon (1991) Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains. New York, NY Random House Inc

Stoltz, Paul G. and Weihenmayer, Erik (2007) The Adversity Advantage: Tuqning Everyday Struggles Into Everyday Greatness. Old Saybrook, CT Tantor Media Inc

Weihenmayer, Erik (2002). Touch the Top of the World: A Blind Man's Journey to Climb Farther Than the Eye Can See. New York, NY Plume

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