All entries for Wednesday 14 January 2009

January 14, 2009

Leadership is a function

Today I learnt about leadership is a function in which to satisfy three levels of needs (Fig.1).

  1. Task need
  2. Group need
  3. Individual need


Fig1. John Adair's three circles of need. (Source: Sterling)

Some of the leadership theories I read such as trait theory, behaviorist theory, and contingency theory and so on, and the sort of research studies done by Hersey & Blanchard, Fiedler e.t.c, although it helps to see the different leader styles (i.e. task versus people oriented) , it's no so clear what is it that leaders should do. I mean, for example, with Fiedler's theory, is it true that in alls situations with the characteristics of 1) poor  leader-follower relationship 2) high task structure, always mean a soft management approach will be effective? See (Fig 2). How can be sure that a task-oriented appraoch wouldnt work? Maybe this is what his empirical evidences tell us, that there is a certain style for different situation, but I think this kind of conclusion is hard to accept.


Fig.2 Fiedler's Contingency Model. Situation I, II, VII, VIII are suitable for Task-oriented leadership style. Situation III, IV, V, VI are suitable for People oriented leadership style. Source: MBE Leadership and Excellence homepage.

In contrast, I find John Adair's three circles of need much more practical and easy to understand. For starter, he describes leadership as a function to fulfil certain needs which he identifies as the need of the group task, the need of the group, and the need of the individuals. Essentially, he argues, the success of any one need is dependent on how well other needs are satisfied (that's why three circles are overlapping each other). For example, to be successful at a task assigned to a group, is dependent on how well the group is maintained (whether people get along), and how competent/motivated each individual are. Equally speaking,  if task is successfully accomplished, it wil lead to better team maintenance (morale is high), and higher self esteem. Thus forming a virtuous reinforcing cycle, or a destructive cycle- if any one of the circle is severely compromised or missing, then the group can easily disintegrate.

So what is the role of the leader? Adair argues that "leadership resides in the functions not a person"- that is leaders fulfil certain functions that leads to the gratification of these three different needs. Therefore, anyone who perform these functions is potentially a leader. Although he does not explicitly states what functions needs to be performed (my guess is that if he does, the leadership function would be too restrictive), he does lay out the general principles. In terms of the three circles of needs, leaders need to

  1. Have awareness of the content of group discussion as well as (more importantly so) the underlying behaviors or reasons for those behaviors.
  2. Need to understand what those reasons or behaviors mean, and know what need to be done.
  3. Have skills to carry out supportive/corrective actions sucessfully. This can be judged by observing whether group respond to leader's intervention.

An example he gives in the book that shed light on leadership functions is in a group discussion, whoever provides the key functions such as intiatiate, clarify, and summarise the discussion is essentially carrying out the leadership function. But does that mean anyone who provide such function is the leader? Not necessarily, he argues, if the group reject for example, the summary being provided, then the supposed leader is not providing leadership. In this sense then, the approval or recognition by the group is essential for leadership.

John also gives some key characteristics which differentiate leader from group member. Firstly the leader is responsible for the success of the task. Therefore if the task failed, the leader will step down from his responsibility. Secondly, leaders should keep distance from the group members because by being to friendly with the group , the ability to make unwelcoming decisions is compromised. Popularity is not his top concern (this coincide with George W Bush's  leadership view- see my previous blog). Therefore, the leader is often a loner and must satisfy his social need through interacting with other leader at his level.

The last two remarks are particularly interesting because of their practical/pragmatic slant. But whether they are true I am not sure. Is it not possible for a leader to be someone that is highly empathetic and "nice" ? (I am reminded of Ahbi's blog "can leader be nice?" at this point). And second, instead of stepping down, shouldn't leader's get a second chance, as long as he know what went wrong and improve on it?

On the whole, I like John Adair's explanation of leadership as a function to fulfils three levels of needs. To me it seems more useful and provide a better idea what leaders should do to be effective.

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