8 Functions Effective Leaders Need to Focus on to Make a Difference
Updated: Mar 26
“We know now that someone in a leadership role has three core and overlapping functions: to achieve the tasks, to hold a group together as a unity, and to meet individual needs.” — John Adair
People associate leadership with the traits of a person. Leaders are publicly recognized for their charm and charisma. In fact, personal characteristics are a good indicator of how inspiring a leader is.
This is known as the trait theory of leadership. However, there is a functional approach to leadership that is much more practical and simple.
Trait theory focuses more on an individual's behavior than on their actions. However, a functional approach to leadership — put forth by John Adair — is much more practical and simple. John Eric Adair is one of the leading experts on leadership in organizations. His model focuses more on what the leaders should do than what behavior they need to teach. According to Adair, anybody can be a good leader. In that context, he proposed eight leadership functions that need to be performed by the leaders to achieve success.
1. Setting the Objectives
“The very essence of leadership is that you have to have vision. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” — Theodore M. Hesburgh
Vision is like the finish line in a race. The runners in a race know what they are running towards. If they cannot reach the finish line— it does not matter how fast or how much distance they run. Imagine running in a race but do not know where the finish line is. You will be clueless about in which direction you have to run. Or, think about a race where you have five different finish lines in random order. No one tells you which one to reach in what order. Will you ever be motivated to run that race? How fruitless is it to participate in such a competition? Like in the race, your team needs to know what they are working towards. They need a definite target to achieve. As the leader, it is your responsibility to set the objective for the team. Explain the vision in detail to help the team understand why they should try to achieve it and what is in it for them if they successfully get there.
In the running competition, knowing the finish line is not enough. The athletes cannot jump to the track on race day and start running. They plan well ahead on approaching the race based on how long the race is, at what time of the day it will be conducted, what kind of turf they will get to run, and many other factors. Similarly, once you have the objective set for the team, the next function is planning. Planning is crucial to ensure the team works towards the vision with the most optimal approach. Hence, spend enough time planning your strategy. Involve the whole team in the exercise. Give them a free hand to discuss all sorts of approaches to achieve the target. You will be surprised how the team comes up with many ideas when they are free to share their thoughts. As a leader, your function is to control the planning process. Help the team to keep the discussion focused on the objective. Answer their questions that come up during the process. Finally, narrow down to a commonly agreed-upon plan that you feel is the most optimal for your vision.
Communication is one of the vital functions of a leader. A leader who cannot communicate effectively fails to motivate the team and spreads more confusion than actual information.
Most of the time, the team that makes a plan is different from the team that executes it. Hence, it is essential that the executioners thoroughly grasp the minute details for the plan's success.
A good plan can fail to derive the best result due to miscommunication between the planner and the people who execute them.
Once the plan is set, your function as a leader is to make sure everyone understands it. Explain to the team— what your vision is, why the vision is important, and how the plan will help the team to achieve the objective.
This is the phase where all the prerequisites to make the plan successful are completed. Now you have to actually get the plan into action. Going back to our example of a running competition — it is race day now. With everything in place, if you cannot stick to the plan and run accordingly, you will not have a chance at winning. As a leader, your job is to monitor the action, help the team with the execution, and check the output quality. Ensure that everyone in the team is involved and shares equal responsibility for getting things done.
While controlling the process, one thing to remember is not to micromanage. Give the team a free hand to perform the job and make sure everyone is happy.
Once the team completes the job, it needs to do the retrospective to determine if the job is done right. The idea is to list down what worked well, what did not work well, and what can be improved in the future to get a better result. As a leader, your function is to control the evaluation method to extract the best learning lessons. It is also essential to check with the team if they are happy with the whole process and its outcome. In my experience, I see many teams do the retrospection but do not act on it in the future. This is where the leader needs to emphasize the importance of using the lessons learned to improve future actions.
Motivation is the key to the success of any plan. The team's performance depends on how excited and motivated they feel about the whole exercise during the execution and after completing the task.
Imagine the race scenario— you know what you have to do to win the race, and you have a thorough plan to execute it. But on race day, you do not feel the motivation to compete. In such a case, you cannot win irrespective of all the preparation.
The motivation level of the team does not remain constant throughout. People's personal and professional issues hamper their level of contribution. When a task is complex or needs a long time to achieve the desired result, it becomes harder to focus on the objective.
Build in the motivation throughout all the phases. As a leader, it is on you to keep the team's morale high. Remember to appreciate the team for a job well done. Reiterate how valuable each of their contributions is to meet the objective.
Influential leaders possess excellent organizational skills. They know how to manage their time efficiently.
A big part of the leadership functions is to know how to delegate the tasks effectively.
As you grow in your career, your responsibilities will grow with it. Even if you try, you will not be able to give due attention to all of them. Hence, it is better to prioritize your time on the most crucial tasks that no one else can do.
Delegate the rest of the responsibilities to your team members. Be available for them in case they need help but do not micromanage. This will instill a sense of ownership among the team members and help them learn from their own experiences.
8. Setting Example
“They will have the right to expect from you the highest standards of character, professional competence, and integrity.” — John Adair
Team members look up to their leaders for inspiration. It is not what the leaders say but what they do is important.
Part of the leadership function is to walk the talk. Leading by example will build trust among the team members. Do not ask your team to do something that you are unwilling to do yourself.
For example, if you want your team to stay late and complete a task, make sure you stay late with them. That shows that you are not just giving orders, but you are ready to put in the effort.
Leaders are the torchbearers for their teams and the company. Employees look up to them for guidance and inspiration. Hence, leaders need to perform at the highest level of competence with integrity.
The eight leadership functions prescribed by John Adair have already proven their effectiveness among various organizations and institutions as a simple tool for today's leaders to make a difference.
Try to perform the leadership functions in your job role, gather feedback from the team about its effectiveness, and improvise on them to derive the maximum benefit from it.
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