What Is The Functional Leadership Model? The Functional Leadership Model In A Nutshell

The functional leadership model concentrates on how leadership occurs as opposed to who does the leading.  The functional leadership model argues that leadership does not rest with any one individual. Instead, it is based on a set of behaviors collectively embodied by the group that assists in task completion.

Concept OverviewFunctional Leadership is a leadership approach that emphasizes the importance of leaders’ specific functional expertise and their ability to guide and influence teams based on their subject matter knowledge. In this model, leadership is not restricted to a formal title or position but is distributed among individuals with expertise in various functions or domains. Functional leaders are recognized for their competence in specific areas, and they play a crucial role in decision-making, problem-solving, and influencing outcomes within their domains. This approach is particularly valuable in complex organizations where diverse functional areas require specialized leadership. Functional leaders collaborate to align their efforts with organizational goals.
Key Elements– Functional Leadership comprises several key elements: – Expertise: Functional leaders are experts in their specific domains and possess in-depth knowledge and skills. – Influence: They use their expertise to influence decision-making, problem-solving, and strategies within their functional areas. – Collaboration: Functional leaders collaborate with colleagues in other functions to ensure alignment with organizational objectives. – Resource Allocation: They often have a say in resource allocation within their domains, including budgeting and personnel decisions. – Adaptability: Functional leaders adapt their leadership styles to the unique needs and challenges of their functional areas. – Alignment: They work to align the objectives of their functions with the broader goals of the organization.
Applications– Functional Leadership can be applied in various settings, including: – Corporate and Business: Large organizations with diverse functional areas utilize this approach to leverage subject matter expertise. – Matrix Organizations: In matrix structures, functional leadership is common to manage cross-functional projects and teams effectively. – Healthcare: Healthcare institutions rely on functional leaders in clinical areas such as surgery, nursing, and diagnostics. – Engineering and Technology: In engineering firms, functional leaders guide technical teams in areas like software development and mechanical engineering. – Academia: In educational institutions, functional leadership is evident among department heads and subject matter experts.
Benefits– Embracing Functional Leadership offers several benefits: – Specialized Expertise: Functional leaders bring specialized expertise to their areas, leading to high-quality outcomes. – Efficient Resource Allocation: They play a role in resource allocation, ensuring that resources are deployed effectively within their domains. – Problem-Solving: Functional leaders are skilled problem solvers, addressing challenges within their areas of expertise. – Cross-Functional Collaboration: Collaboration across functions is facilitated by functional leaders working together. – Alignment: They contribute to the alignment of functional objectives with organizational goals. – Innovation: Expertise-driven leadership encourages innovation and best practices within functional areas.
Challenges– Challenges associated with Functional Leadership may include: – Silos: Overemphasis on functional expertise can lead to silos and lack of collaboration between functions. – Conflict: Conflict may arise when functional leaders have differing priorities or objectives. – Narrow Focus: Functional leaders may have a narrow focus on their domains and may overlook broader organizational concerns. – Coordination: Ensuring effective coordination between functional leaders and across functions can be challenging. – Leadership Vacuum: In the absence of a unified top leadership team, a leadership vacuum may occur. – Innovation Limitation: Overreliance on functional expertise may limit innovation that requires cross-functional collaboration.
Prevention and Mitigation– To address challenges associated with Functional Leadership, organizations can: – Cross-Functional Teams: Encourage cross-functional teams and initiatives to break down silos and promote collaboration. – Clear Objectives: Ensure that functional leaders have clear objectives that align with broader organizational goals. – Conflict Resolution: Implement conflict resolution mechanisms to address disputes between functional leaders. – Top Leadership Team: Establish a top leadership team that can provide overarching direction and unity. – Leadership Development: Invest in leadership development programs to broaden the leadership skills of functional leaders. – Communication: Promote transparent communication across functions to facilitate coordination.

Understanding the functional leadership model

The functional leadership model concentrates on how leadership occurs as opposed to who does the leading. 

As the name suggests, leadership is a distributed function under the functional leadership model. By focusing on the function of leadership, it is easier to see the stimuli responsible for influencing the behavior of an organization – even if these stimuli are driven by informal or unexpected sources.

Functional leadership itself is sometimes used to describe job positions where the individual has a large degree of autonomy. Employees in these positions, regardless of rank or seniority, play an active role in facilitating organizational effectiveness and cohesion. By extension, the model also suggests any employee can embody leadership behaviors under the right circumstances.

Functional leadership model interpretations

The functional leadership model is best exemplified by action-centered leadership, an interpretation developed by British academic John Adair. 

Adair’s model is based on three, overlapping or interlocking circles denoting team, task, and individual needs. These needs and the relationship between them should be taken into account by the leader.

Each circle overlaps because:

  • Achieving a task builds a team and satisfies the individuals comprising the team.
  • Teams lacking cohesiveness reduce task performance and individual satisfaction.
  • Individuals lacking satisfaction results in a loss of cohesiveness and impede task performance.

The eight key functions of the functional leadership model

For a leader to achieve success in the context of the above three needs, Adair believed eight functions must be developed and displayed: 

  • Defining the task – in a functional leadership model, tasks are distilled into clear SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-constrained) objectives.
  • Planning – this involves considering alternative ways to achieve a task and formulating contingency strategies should problems arise.
  • Briefing the team – this is seen as a fundamental aspect of leadership essential to creating the right working environment, encouraging teamwork, and motivating each individual to perform.
  • Controlling what happens – Adair also noted that the most effective leaders achieved maximum results from the least amount of resources. These results are facilitated by the leader exhibiting good self-control and having the ability to delegate and monitor as necessary. 
  • Evaluating results – leaders also need to evaluate and appraise team and individual performance. 
  • Motivating individuals – Adair describes six principles for motivating others: be motivated yourself, select people who are highly motivated, provide fair rewards, give recognition, set realistic and challenging targets, and remember that progress is a motivator.
  • Organizing people – sound leaders can organize themselves and the team around existing organizational procedures or structures. This may involve good time management, personal development, and delegation.
  • Setting an example – setting a good example is paramount because bad behavior tends to stand out. This eighth function is based on the premise that subordinates observe and then mimic the behavior of their superiors.

Key takeaways:

  • The functional leadership model argues task completion is based on a set of behaviors collectively embodied by a group of individuals. By extension, any employee can embody leadership characteristics to increase organizational effectiveness.
  • The functional leadership model is best exemplified by action-centered leadership, an interpretation developed by John Adair. Adair’s model is based on three, overlapping circles denoting team, task, and individual needs. 
  • The functional leadership model stresses the importance of eight key functions: defining the task, planning, briefing the team, controlling what happens, evaluating results, motivating individuals, organizing people, and setting an example.

Key Highlights

  • Definition of Functional Leadership Model:
    • The functional leadership model focuses on how leadership occurs rather than who is leading.
    • It suggests that leadership is a collective behavior distributed among a group to facilitate task completion.
  • Principle of Distribution:
    • Leadership is seen as a function distributed among members of a group.
    • Leadership behaviors can be exhibited by any employee under suitable circumstances, regardless of rank.
  • Adair’s Action-Centered Leadership:
    • John Adair’s interpretation of the functional leadership model emphasizes three overlapping circles: team, task, and individual needs.
    • Effective leadership considers the relationship between these needs for successful outcomes.
  • Eight Key Functions of the Model:
    • Defining the Task: Tasks are broken down into specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-constrained (SMART) objectives.
    • Planning: Leaders consider various strategies to accomplish tasks and develop contingency plans.
    • Briefing the Team: Creating a conducive environment, fostering teamwork, and motivating individuals is crucial.
    • Controlling What Happens: Leaders achieve maximum results with minimum resources, practicing self-control, delegation, and monitoring.
    • Evaluating Results: Leaders assess team and individual performance to improve future outcomes.
    • Motivating Individuals: Principles include personal motivation, selecting motivated team members, fair rewards, recognition, challenging goals, and acknowledging progress.
    • Organizing People: Effective leaders organize themselves and the team within existing organizational structures, involving time management, personal development, and delegation.
    • Setting an Example: Leaders set positive examples as subordinates often mimic their superiors’ behavior.
  • Key Takeaways:
    • The functional leadership model emphasizes collective behavior contributing to task completion.
    • Action-centered leadership, exemplified by John Adair’s interpretation, focuses on team, task, and individual needs.
    • Eight key functions include defining tasks, planning, briefing teams, controlling activities, evaluating results, motivating individuals, organizing people, and setting examples.

Read Also: Leadership vs. Management.

Types Of Leadership

Hierarchical Organizational Structure

In a hierarchical structure, you have a company organized in a vertical manner, where groups follow a top-down decision-making approach, where most decisions flow from the top to the bottom of the organization. One example is Apple’s organizational structure today.

Flat Organizational Structure

In a flat organizational structure, there is little to no middle management between employees and executives. Therefore it reduces the space between employees and executives to enable an effective communication flow within the organization, thus being faster and leaner.


A holacracy is a management strategy and an organizational structure where the power to make important decisions is distributed throughout an organization. It differs from conventional management hierarchies where power is in the hands of a select few. The core principle of a holacracy is self-organization where employees organize into several teams and then work in a self-directed fashion toward a common goal.



Change Management


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.


Micromanagement is about tightly controlling or observing employees’ work. Although in some cases, this management style might be understood, especially for small-scale projects, generally speaking, micromanagement has a negative connotation mainly because it shows a lack of trust and freedom in the workplace, which leads to adverse outcomes.

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. 

Active Listening

Active listening is the process of listening attentively while someone speaks and displaying understanding through verbal and non-verbal techniques. Active listening is a fundamental part of good communication, fostering a positive connection and building trust between individuals.

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.

RASCI Matrix

A RASCI matrix is used to assign and then display the various roles and responsibilities in a project, service, or process. It is sometimes called a RASCI Responsibility Matrix. The RASCI matrix is essentially a project management tool that provides important clarification for organizations involved in complex projects.

Flat Organizational Structure

In a flat organizational structure, there is little to no middle management between employees and executives. Therefore it reduces the space between employees and executives to enable an effective communication flow within the organization, thus being faster and leaner.

Tactical Management

Tactical management involves choosing an appropriate course of action to achieve a strategic plan or objective. Therefore, tactical management comprises the set of daily operations that support long strategy delivery. It may involve risk management, regular meetings, conflict resolution, and problem-solving.

High-Performance Management

High-performance management involves the implementation of HR practices that are internally consistent and aligned with organizational strategy. Importantly, high-performance management is a continual process where several different but integrated activities create a performance management cycle. It is not a process that should be performed once a year and then hidden in a filing cabinet.

Scientific Management

Scientific Management Theory was created by Frederick Winslow Taylor in 1911 as a means of encouraging industrial companies to switch to mass production. With a background in mechanical engineering, he applied engineering principles to workplace productivity on the factory floor. Scientific Management Theory seeks to find the most efficient way of performing a job in the workplace.

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