British author and leadership teacher John Adair says half a group’s effectiveness depends on the individuals in the group. The other half on the quality of the group’s leadership. So the key to success is to find a decent leader. That’s not easy; because as Adair also says there’s no such thing as a born leader.
The good news is that leadership can be learnt.
To help Adair developed what he calls his three circles or action centred model to look at what makes an effective leader.
He says, “There’s more to leadership than technical or professional knowledge as many a manager has had to discover the hard way. So the third approach, the one most associated with my name, is the functional approach. But there are these three overlapping areas of leadership responsibility – to help a group to achieve its task, to build it as a team and to develop and motivate the individuals.”
These overlapping areas are the task, the collective group need and the needs of each individual group member. Adair says they are closely linked. They interact, often overlap and can conflict with each other.
Knowledge workers are often fully autonomous, highly motivated and self-starting. When we have to work on our own, we can usually do so without any problem. In fact, many knowledge workers prefer to work alone as they fear they cannot fully rely on others to pull their weight.
Yet the realities of the modern workplace dictate we often have to work in groups. Groups come together when there is a task to perform that cannot effectively be carried out by a single person working alone. This task is central to the formation of any group.
For a group of people to function as a unit, there needs to be group cohesiveness. This can be informal or formal, but defining and maintaining the glue between people in a group is an important leadership function.
When individuals come together in a group, each one brings his or her own set of needs. These include physical and psychological needs – group members need to feel comfortable, be adequately rewarded and recognized for their contribution to the whole.
Adair says that in any functioning group there has to be someone in a distinctive leadership role. This person need not be the same person as the group’s manager. In fact, many experts argue that it is best if the group leader is not the group’s manager.
There are clear lines of demarcation between the work of the group and the activities of a group’s leader. Group members concern themselves with the function parts of fulfilling the core task while leaders need to concentrate on two more sets of activities: the group’s tasks and the processes that take place within the group.
A leader’s role in the group task is to see that group members are working towards achieving the goal. There’s nothing to stop a leader from contributing personally towards this work. In fact, the best leaders do contribute – it’s known as leading by example. But if the leader ends up doing all, or even the bulk, of the work they will have failed as a leader. And there’s a good chance the project will fail – the reason for forming a group in the first place was recognition that the task involves too much work for any individual.
Group process activities are those tasks, which ensure the group remains in an effective state to continue working towards the core goal. The leader’s job is to ensure the group stays cohesive, motivated and focused. He or she also needs to ensure that everyone is working towards the common goal and not wandering off on a tangent or shirking their responsibilities to the others.
Effective leaders need to concern themselves with both task AND process. It’s no good if the task is completed, but the group is burnt out. Most work groups need to remain intact for further tasks.
Leaders who focus too much on driving the core task forward at the expanse of group dynamics face objections, mutiny or worse. Group members will object and resent such people. You can expect low moral, resentment, withdrawal and friction. This undermines the group, puts the project in danger and destroys the person’s leadership credibility. On the other hand, overemphasis on the group dynamics may be good for all those touchy-feely things modern management gurus love but can lead to an inadequate performance on the core task.
Adair says the best leaders need to juggle these two elements while recognizing they are mutually incompatible.