Leadership Part 3

This is the third part of my contribution on leadership, a terribly important subject.  In Part 1, I posed the question of “What does a leader do in order to lead?” I followed that question with a discussion on the qualities approach to leadership.  In Part 2, in answer to the same question I discussed the Situational Approach to leadership.

In my view both the Qualities and Situational approaches to leadership fail to answer the question of what does a leader DO!  I subscribe to the theory of Functional Leadership as conceived by John Adair.

John Adair (1934), best-known for his three-circle model of Action-Centred Leadership, is widely regarded as the UK’s foremost authority on leadership and leadership development in organisations. He has written over 40 books and more than a million managers have taken his Action-Centred Leadership programmes.

Adair firmly believes that leadership can be taught, that it does not depend on a person’s traits and that it is a transferable skill.

Adair’s ideas remain popular because they are practical and relevant to managers irrespective of working environment, and his works have been instrumental in overturning the ‘Great Man’ theories of leadership.

Adair is prominent for drawing a clear distinction between leadership and management: the latter, he contends, is rooted in mechanics, control and systems. He contrasts this with his teaching method, Action-Centred Leadership, that has proved to be an enduring approach defining leadership in terms of three overlapping and interdependent circles: Task, Team and Individual. John Adair is less well-known for his other ideas on the practical aspects of leadership such as decision-making and personal effectiveness, although many of these ideas were ahead of their time and are now widely taught and applied.

Life and career

Adair’s early career was varied and colourful and undoubtedly formed the basis for his views on leadership. After joining the Scots Guards he became the only national serviceman to serve in the Arab Legion, where he was adjutant in a Bedouin regiment. Before going to university he qualified as a deckhand and worked on an Icelandic trawler. He also worked as an orderly in a hospital operating theatre. After studying at Cambridge University he became senior lecturer in Military History, and Leadership Training Adviser at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. He went on to become the Director of Studies at St George’s House in Windsor Castle, and two years later was appointed Assistant Director of the Industrial Society (now The Work Foundation), where he pioneered Action-Centred Leadership. In 1979 John Adair became the world’s first professor in Leadership Studies at the University of Surrey. Adair is currently an Emeritus Fellow of the Windsor Leadership Trust. Since 2006, he has been Honorary Professor of Leadership at the China Executive Leadership Academy in Pudong and in 2009 he was appointed Chair of Leadership Studies at the United Nations System Staff College in Turin

A prolific thinker, Adair’s academic accolades include Master of Letters from Oxford University, and a Doctorate of Philosophy from King’s College, London. The prestigious title of Honorary Professor was bestowed on him by the People’s Republic of China for his outstanding contribution and research in the field of leadership.

Key theories

Action-Centred Leadership

This simple and practical model is figuratively based on three overlapping circles. These represent the task, the team and the individual. The model seems to endure well, probably because it is the fundamental model for describing what leaders have to DO, the actions they must take whatever their working environment, in order to be effective:

  1. Achieve the task
  2. Build and maintain the team
  3. Develop the individual

Task, team and individual: Adair’s concept asserts that the three needs of task, team and individual are the watchwords of leadership, as people expect their leaders to help them achieve the common task, build the synergy of teamwork, and respond to individuals’ needs.

  • The task needs work groups or organisations to come into effect because one person alone cannot accomplish it.
  • The team needs constant promotion and retention of group cohesiveness to ensure that it functions efficiently. The team functions on the ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ principle.
  • The individual’s needs are the physical ones (tools, equipment, salary etc) and the psychological ones of recognition; sense of purpose and achievement; status; and the need to give and receive from others in a work environment.

For Adair, the task, team and individual needs overlap as follows:

  • Achieving the task builds the team and satisfies the individuals.
  • If the team needs are not met – if the team lacks cohesiveness – then performance of the task is impaired and individual satisfaction is reduced
  • If individual needs are not met the team will lack cohesiveness and performance of the task will be impaired

Adair’s view is that leadership exists at three different levels:

  • Team leadership of teams of 5 to 20 people
  • Operational leadership, where a number of team leaders report to one leader
  • Strategic leadership of a whole business or organisation, with overall accountability for all levels of leadership

At whatever level leadership is being exercised, Adair’s model takes the view that task, team and individual needs must be constantly considered.

The strengths of the concept are that it is timeless and is independent of situation or organisational culture. A further strength of the concept is that it can help a leader to identify where he or she may be losing touch with the real needs of the group or situation.