Introducing action-centred leadership

Action-centred leadership proposes that a leader must focus on the needs of the individuals in the team, the needs of the team, and the needs of the task.

“A manager will take six months to get to know his staff, but they will take only six days to get to know him.”

So says John Adair, whose simple 3 Circles Model we feature in the article below. This easy-to-remember model will help you balance your attention while you lead your team.

3 Circles Model

John Adair has had an interesting and varied career, and is an acknowledged thinker in the field of leadership. He has written 40 books and taught at leading universities – this model is perhaps his best-known work, developed in the 1970s.

Adair said: “Groups and organisations are unique with different personalities but they have three areas of need that overlap. That enables the identification of key functions that have to be performed.”

As shown in the diagram, Adair emphasised that a leader must constantly balance the needs of the task, the individual and the group.

  • Task needs
    Setting work standards, guidelines and targets, and providing the resources required.
  • Group needs
    Training, team-building, motivating and maintaining discipline.
  • Individual needs
    Coaching, mentoring and motivating staff.

In my opinion, leadership has clearly evolved further since this model was devised, but I do believe this is a helpful structure to keep in your mind. Many of the leaders I work with have a disposition towards one of the three, especially task, and so it’s useful to have a reminder to balance your attention.

“Ten soldiers wisely led, will beat a hundred without a head.”
Euripides (fifth century BC)

At certain times, the needs of one circle may exceed the other two.

Although there will always be exceptions, Adair recommends that your decisions should be based on the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

  • Where all three needs clash, base your decision on the needs of the organisation, to ensure long-term business success.
  • Where team needs clash with individual needs, base your decision on what is best for the team, in order to sustain morale.
  • On occasion, you may need to give priority to individual needs, to ensure your people can thrive.

“People expect their leaders to help them to achieve the common task, to build the synergy of teamwork and to respond to individuals and meet their needs.”
John Adair

Building on the 3 Circles for today

Adair asserts that the 21st-Century leader needs to be a blend of Western, Eastern and tribal traditions, to create a new level of thinking and unlock the power and potential of individuals.

  • From the Western tradition, he would take the idea there is a generic role of the leader, requiring specific qualities and skills.
  • From the Eastern approach, he would choose the idea that a true leader also has self-effacing humility. You don’t have to be a great extrovert or egotist, or have the charismatic presence that some people think are central to leadership.
  • From the tribal camp, he would take integrity and moral soundness, with leaders being carefully chosen and approved by their peers.

“It is a great emphasis on involving people in decisions, listening to them and consulting – something we often lose in the West,” he explains. “We need the kind of leadership that can draw greatness out of people to meet problems. We are looking for good leaders and leaders for good.”

“The price of excellence in teamwork is eternal vigilance.”
John Adair

My interpretation of leadership

The most effective leaders, in my experience, have a lifelong approach to leadership.  You are a leader, not just because you are a technical expert but also because of your personal characteristics, ability to set direction and inspire others to come with you.

For a really insightful and thoughtful leadership model, see leadership agility – the first article I wrote.

As I mentioned above, in my experience leaders are naturally drawn to one of the three circles. Most often, I find leaders are drawn to task. Next, there are those leaders who are more drawn to the individuals in the team and helping them thrive.

So, what about you?

  1. Where do you typically spend your time?
  2. Are you naturally drawn to one circle over the other two?
  3. What percentage of your time do you spend in each circle?
  4. What percentage do you think it should be?

Take a few minutes to answer my questionnaire below, to help you with your thinking. Once you’ve done this, you can then determine for yourself where to shift your time, if this is necessary.

I created this questionnaire based on my experience of what makes for a successful business and team; I would be interested in what questions you would have added!  If I get lots of extra input I will update and re-issue the questionnaire for you to refer to again as a (hopefully) useful guide.

“He is as full of valour as of kindness. Princely in both.”
William Shakespeare, Henry V

Further reading

This topic links to my articles about:

Next month: How Nudge Theory relates to organisational life.
The next issue will be September – have a great rest of the summer!

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