Action-Centered Leadership

  • Action-centered leadership defines leadership in the context of three interlocking areas of responsibility and concern. This framework is used by leaders in the management of teams, groups, and organizations.
  • Developed in the 1960s and first published in 1973, action-centered leadership was revolutionary for its time because it believed leaders could learn the skills they needed to manage others effectively.
  • Adair believed that effective leadership was exemplified by three overlapping circles (responsibilities): achieve the task, build and maintain the team, and develop the individual. 

Understanding action-centered leadership

Action-centered leadership defines leadership in the context of three interlocking areas of responsibility and concern. This framework is used by leaders in the management of teams, groups, and organizations.

Action-centered leadership is the brainchild of John Adair, a British leadership theorist and author who has released more than 40 books on leadership in business, the military, and various other contexts.

Developed in the 1960s and first published in 1973, action-centered leadership was revolutionary for its time.

Unlike other theories, Adair based his on the belief that effective leadership was not simply a trait one was born with.

Instead, certain qualities could be learned by anyone via specific, actionable steps and best practices.

Action-centered leadership remains popular today because its ideas are practical and relevant to all leaders irrespective of their job title or industry.

The model is also simple to use and has positive effects on productivity, morale, and company culture.

The three circle model of action-centered leadership

Adair considered that leadership occurred in the context of three circles: 

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

Each circle represents a key responsibility and individuals must have a good grasp of all three to be effective leaders.

Note that the three circles overlap. Some aspects of achieving tasks will overlap with building the team, while elements of developing the individual will also overlap with achieving tasks, and so on.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at each circle below.

Achieve the task

Tasks are activities that require strategic guidance and a collaborative effort from team members.

Some of the steps that clarify how strategic guidance are listed below:

  • Determine the vision, aims, purpose, and direction of the team for each task. Then, identify key people, tools, processes, and resources.
  • Devise and implement a plan to achieve the task with deliverables, timelines, and strategies that are concise and measurable. 
  • Define time and quality standards for deliverables and reporting parameters. Threats to these parameters should also be controlled or prevented.

Build and maintain the team

To sustain team performance, leaders must be able to promote values that encourage cohesiveness or unity. Adair noted that this leadership ability depended on an awareness of the motivations of individuals.

Some steps to build and maintain the team include:

  • Establish standards for team behavior and performance.
  • Clarify a team’s culture and style.
  • Anticipate and resolve conflict. 
  • Implement and maintain standards of effective group communication.
  • Monitor the balance of team composition and adjust if necessary, and
  • Promote maturity and enhance capabilities to increase a collective sense of autonomy.

Develop the individual

Individual development can only occur when their physical and psychological needs are met.

Physical needs may include an attractive salary or facilitative workspace, while psychological needs relate to purpose, meaning, and recognition.

Adair recommended that individual development could be performed with the following initiatives:

  • Recognize and appreciate the diversity of individual team member personalities, aspirations, concerns, and strong points.
  • Encourage and support individuals in their professional development. Where appropriate, individuals should be offered more responsibility or career advancement opportunities.
  • Celebrate and praise desirable behaviors whilst offering constructive feedback for less-than-desirable behaviors. 

Key Highlights

  • Action-Centered Leadership Definition: Action-centered leadership is a leadership framework that defines leadership through three interconnected areas of responsibility: achieving tasks, building and maintaining teams, and developing individuals. This framework guides leaders in managing teams, groups, and organizations effectively.
  • John Adair’s Contribution: Action-centered leadership was developed by John Adair, a British leadership theorist and author of numerous books on leadership. He introduced this framework in the 1960s, and it was published in 1973. Adair’s approach challenged the notion that effective leadership was solely an innate trait, instead emphasizing learnable skills.
  • Three Overlapping Circles:
    • Achieve the Task: Leaders need to provide strategic guidance and collaboration to accomplish tasks. This involves defining vision, aims, and direction, devising and implementing plans, and setting standards for quality and timelines.
    • Build and Maintain the Team: Leaders must promote team cohesion by establishing behavior and performance standards, resolving conflicts, enhancing communication, and maintaining a balanced team composition.
    • Develop the Individual: Leaders need to address the physical and psychological needs of individuals. This includes recognizing diversity, supporting professional development, and providing feedback to encourage desirable behaviors.
  • Overlapping Responsibilities: The three circles of leadership responsibility overlap, indicating that aspects of achieving tasks, building teams, and developing individuals are interconnected.
  • Practicality and Relevance: Action-centered leadership remains popular due to its practicality and relevance in various leadership contexts. Adair’s approach is based on actionable steps and best practices that leaders can learn and apply.
  • Positive Effects: Action-centered leadership has positive effects on productivity, morale, and company culture. Its simplicity and focus on practicality make it effective for leaders in different industries and roles.

Key Takeaways:

  • Action-Centered Leadership is a framework focusing on three interconnected leadership responsibilities: achieving tasks, building teams, and developing individuals.
  • Developed by John Adair, it challenges the idea that leadership is an inherent trait and emphasizes learnable skills.
  • The three circles of responsibility overlap, highlighting the interconnectedness of leadership functions.
  • Action-Centered Leadership’s practicality and relevance make it suitable for diverse leadership contexts, leading to positive effects on productivity and company culture.

Connected Leadership Concepts And Frameworks

Leadership Styles

Leadership styles encompass the behavioral qualities of a leader. These qualities are commonly used to direct, motivate, or manage groups of people. Some of the most recognized leadership styles include Autocratic, Democratic, or Laissez-Faire leadership styles.

Agile Leadership

Agile leadership is the embodiment of agile manifesto principles by a manager or management team. Agile leadership impacts two important levels of a business. The structural level defines the roles, responsibilities, and key performance indicators. The behavioral level describes the actions leaders exhibit to others based on agile principles. 

Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership is a model used by leaders to help individuals adapt to complex or rapidly changing environments. Adaptive leadership is defined by three core components (precious or expendable, experimentation and smart risks, disciplined assessment). Growth occurs when an organization discards ineffective ways of operating. Then, active leaders implement new initiatives and monitor their impact.

Blue Ocean Leadership

Authors and strategy experts Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne developed the idea of blue ocean leadership. In the same way that Kim and Mauborgne’s blue ocean strategy enables companies to create uncontested market space, blue ocean leadership allows companies to benefit from unrealized employee talent and potential.

Delegative Leadership

Developed by business consultants Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey in the 1960s, delegative leadership is a leadership style where authority figures empower subordinates to exercise autonomy. For this reason, it is also called laissez-faire leadership. In some cases, this type of leadership can lead to increases in work quality and decision-making. In a few other cases, this type of leadership needs to be balanced out to prevent a lack of direction and cohesiveness of the team.

Distributed Leadership

Distributed leadership is based on the premise that leadership responsibilities and accountability are shared by those with the relevant skills or expertise so that the shared responsibility and accountability of multiple individuals within a workplace, bulds up as a fluid and emergent property (not controlled or held by one individual). Distributed leadership is based on eight hallmarks, or principles: shared responsibility, shared power, synergy, leadership capacity, organizational learning, equitable and ethical climate, democratic and investigative culture, and macro-community engagement.

Ethical Leadership

Ethical leaders adhere to certain values and beliefs irrespective of whether they are in the home or office. In essence, ethical leaders are motivated and guided by the inherent dignity and rights of other people.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership is a style of leadership that motivates, encourages, and inspires employees to contribute to company growth. Leadership expert James McGregor Burns first described the concept of transformational leadership in a 1978 book entitled Leadership. Although Burns’ research was focused on political leaders, the term is also applicable for businesses and organizational psychology.

Leading by Example

Those who lead by example let their actions (and not their words) exemplify acceptable forms of behavior or conduct. In a manager-subordinate context, the intention of leading by example is for employees to emulate this behavior or conduct themselves.

Leader vs. Boss

A leader is someone within an organization who possesses the ability to influence and lead others by example. Leaders inspire, support, and encourage those beneath them and work continuously to achieve objectives. A boss is someone within an organization who gives direct orders to subordinates, tends to be autocratic, and prefers to be in control at all times.

Situational Leadership

Situational leadership is based on situational leadership theory. Developed by authors Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard in the late 1960s, the theory’s fundamental belief is that there is no single leadership style that is best for every situation. Situational leadership is based on the belief that no single leadership style is best. In other words, the best style depends on the situation at hand.

Succession Planning

Succession planning is a process that involves the identification and development of future leaders across all levels within a company. In essence, succession planning is a way for businesses to prepare for the future. The process ensures that when a key employee decides to leave, the company has someone else in the pipeline to fill their position.

Fiedler’s Contingency Model

Fielder’s contingency model argues no style of leadership is superior to the rest evaluated against three measures of situational control, including leader-member relations, task structure, and leader power level. In Fiedler’s contingency model, task-oriented leaders perform best in highly favorable and unfavorable circumstances. Relationship-oriented leaders perform best in situations that are moderately favorable but can improve their position by using superior interpersonal skills.

Management vs. Leadership


Cultural Models

In the context of an organization, cultural models are frameworks that define, shape, and influence corporate culture. Cultural models also provide some structure to a corporate culture that tends to be fluid and vulnerable to change. Once upon a time, most businesses utilized a hierarchical culture where various levels of management oversaw subordinates below them. Today, however, there exists a greater diversity in models as leaders realize the top-down approach is outdated in many industries and that success can be found elsewhere.

Action-Centered Leadership

Action-centered leadership defines leadership in the context of three interlocking areas of responsibility and concern. This framework is used by leaders in the management of teams, groups, and organizations. Developed in the 1960s and first published in 1973, action-centered leadership was revolutionary for its time because it believed leaders could learn the skills they needed to manage others effectively. Adair believed that effective leadership was exemplified by three overlapping circles (responsibilities): achieve the task, build and maintain the team, and develop the individual.

High-Performance Coaching

High-performance coaches work with individuals in personal and professional contexts to enable them to reach their full potential. While these sorts of coaches are commonly associated with sports, it should be noted that the act of coaching is a specific type of behavior that is also useful in business and leadership. 

Forms of Power

When most people are asked to define power, they think about the power a leader possesses as a function of their responsibility for subordinates. Others may think that power comes from the title or position this individual holds. 

Tipping Point Leadership

Tipping Point Leadership is a low-cost means of achieving a strategic shift in an organization by focusing on extremes. Here, the extremes may refer to small groups of people, acts, and activities that exert a disproportionate influence over business performance.

Vroom-Yetton Decision Model

The Vroom-Yetton decision model is a decision-making process based on situational leadership. According to this model, there are five decision-making styles guides group-based decision-making according to the situation at hand and the level of involvement of subordinates: Autocratic Type 1 (AI), Autocratic Type 2 (AII), Consultative Type 1 (CI), Consultative Type 2 (CII), Group-based Type 2 (GII).

Likert’s Management Systems

Likert’s management systems were developed by American social psychologist Rensis Likert. Likert’s management systems are a series of leadership theories based on the study of various organizational dynamics and characteristics. Likert proposed four systems of management, which can also be thought of as leadership styles: Exploitative authoritative, Benevolent authoritative, Consultative, Participative.

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