John Adair's
Action Centred Leadership

John Adair has been described by Sir John Harvey-Jones as, "without doubt one of the formost thinkers on leadership in the world".

So, who is John Adair?

After graduating from Cambridge University, Adair was commissioned into the Scots Guards. He later became a senior lecturer in military history and adviser in leadership training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. In 1979 he was appointed the world’s first Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Surrey.

John Adair

As a (now) Visiting Lecturer in Leadership at the University of Westminster, I have always looked up - as well as followed - to John Adair. He was the leadership thinker who first awoke in me my passion for leadership. As you may have guessed, this was thanks to the Scouts and not university.

His model, Action-Centred Leadership, and the simple, practical and easy to grasp thinking behind it, gave me the hope that I could be a good leader. It then gave me the tools to start my own leadership journey and stood me in good stead when I studied other leadership theories.

Today I still refer to John Adair's work in many of my leadership development programmes. I have seen so many others recognise its value. They just seem to get it. But what is "it"?

Action Centred Leadership

In any situation where a group of people are trying to achieve some goal, one or more of those people will emerge and act as a leader to the others.

Look again at this sentence more closely. Break it down into elements. What are they?

According to John Adair, there are three elements to all leadership situations. They are:

  1. The achievement of a goal or task. This may be the completion of a very practical activity or it may be a less tangible goal. We know that effective groups have clear goals shared by all members. Often the task is what brings the group together in the first place.
  2. The group of people performing the task. It is likely that the task will only be achieved if all members of the group work together to the common good. Therefore, the group itself has to be understood as an entity in its own right.
  3. Each individual member of the group involved in the task. While the group will take on a life of its own, individuals do not lose their own identity. Their needs as people must continue to be met if their allegiance to the group, and their motivation to achieve the task, is to be sustained.

This approach, "Action-Centred Leadership", is centred on the actions of the leader. The leader has to balance the needs from each of the three elements. The effective leader is the one who keeps all three in balance; that is who attends to all three at the same time. If any one element is ignored, the others are unlikely to succeed.

Action-Centred Leadership

At the same time, the three elements can conflict with each other. For example, pressure on time and resources often increases pressure on a group to concentrate on the task, to the possible detriment of the people involved. But if group and individual needs are forgotten, much of the effort spent may be misdirected.

In another example, taking time creating a good team spirit without applying effort to the task is likely to mean that the team will lose its focus through lack of achievement.

An approach that a skilled leader might take, in any challenge, is to balance the needs of all three elements as follows:

  • Identify and evaluate the requirements of the task.
  • Communicate these to the group and gain their commitment.
  • Plan the achievement of the task with the group.
  • Identify resources within the group and allocate responsibility to individuals.
  • Monitor and evaluate progress of the whole group and of individual members.
  • Communicate feedback to the group and support, praise, encourage individuals.
  • Review plans, and make changes, with the group until the task is achieved.

John Adair also provides us with a list of what effective leaders do under each of the three headings of "Task", "Group" and "Individual".

Have a look at John Adair's own website to learn more about the man and his work.


Adair, J.E. (1973), "Action-Centred Leadership". McGraw-Hill, London.

Return from John Adair to Learn-to-be-a-Leaderhome page.