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Thought Leaders: Author and speaker John Adair

Helen Mayson

Leadership author and speaker John Adair

Famous for his ‘three circles’ Action Centred Leadership model, John Adair has been nicknamed the father of leadership. Helen Mayson meets the man who inspired a leadership revolution

Your leadership model has been in use for over 40 years. How has it changed since you first devised it?

The model has actually been in service with the armed forces for 50 years, then it was launched into industry about 40 years ago. It’s the world’s longest lasting leadership model.

The three circles model – the task, team and individual – is our best guide to understanding what the role of a leader is. The model was ahead of its time. The modern belief that all you need is a great person at the head of an organisation has never been a part of my philosophy.

Now, we see leadership as existing on different levels; the team leadership level, the operational leadership level and the strategic level, and the three circles applies to all levels – but it is more complex at the strategic level.

How do you think leadership has changed in recent years?

The great revolution of our times has been the shift from old style management to the concept of leadership. When I wrote my first book in 1968, Training for Leadership, it was the only book in the world on the subject. Since then there have been about 78,000 books published, with around 24,000 currently available – so you can see the revolution.

It’s a positive thing that people are much more aware of the need for good leadership and leadership for good, but the vast amount of information has really obscured what it’s all about. Quantity has not produced quality. The immense industry which has grown up around leadership is now estimated to be worth $50bn a year, but has not actually produced many better leaders.

You led some seminars for ILM in 2013. Why did you decide to do these?

I think ILM has already honed in on a core element of my own approach – namely that there are three basic paths of answering the question ‘What is a good leader?’

Half the world’s population is 25 years or under, so we have an immense job of sowing the seeds for the next generation of leaders.

One is to do with what you are, one is to do with what you know, and one is to do with what you do. That ‘Be, know, do’ trinity is common to us both – and my three circle model sums it up, draws it together and gives an immensely practical basis for leaders at all levels. I think we’re a winning combination and we can make a great contribution to the world. I see the destiny of ILM as the centre of excellence for leadership. The main draw for the seminars is twofold. First, people are going to be interested to hear the outline of the global body of knowledge about leadership I’ve been developing, particularly in my role as UN chair of leadership studies.

Secondly, I hope it’s an opportunity for each person coming to review and reflect on their own performance in the role of a leader and measure themselves against what the world is beginning to expect for leaders of the future. The levels of leadership that were acceptable in the past are no longer going to be acceptable. Now, the world expects a better standard of leaders.

What are the challenges facing leaders in 2013 and beyond?

To improve the competence of leaders. We need organisations who are willing to think strategically about leadership development, and this is currently one of our great weaknesses – we don’t have strategies for developing leaders in this country.

The very meaning of the word leader is beginning to change. You think words are fixed, but what is becoming clearer is that we’re now using the word leader to refer to somebody who is morally good. The idea that you could be a bad leader – a strong leader, but a bad man, like Hitler – is gone. Leaders need to personify and exemplify a ‘good’ person. That’s going to be the next great revolution of our times.

Half the world’s population is 25 years or under, so we have an immense job of sowing the seeds for the next generation of leaders.

For many in leadership at the moment it’s too late – they will see out their time and that’s it. We need to focus on aspiring leaders who want to do things differently, who want a better world. Those are the kind of people that we want to connect with.

Why do you think we’re seeing a fall in trust in leaders?

The reason we’re seeing a drop is that we all have certain expectations of leadership that we only become aware of when we’re confronted with bad leaders

In a leadership role, you’re in a position of trust. We’ve been plagued by a generation of egocentric, arrogant people in leadership positions.

What we now need is that the people who occupy leadership roles or positions should actually be leaders – we’ve got too many people in the roles who are not leaders.

Where do you think there is currently the greatest need for leadership development?

We are surrounded by people who have never been introduced to the world’s body of knowledge about leadership. They don’t know even what the leadership requirement is.

When I hear people being criticised for being bad leaders, or not leaders at all, I always ask if they have been introduced at the right time to the role of the leader. It’s unfair to criticise and damn people as bad leaders if they were never told what the requirements were.

In most cases, you’ll find that person had no introduction to leadership at all. I interviewed three former prime ministers and asked them when they had started learning about leadership – two of them looked at me blankly and said they’d never heard the word, the third one had once read a book on leadership – but he said to me, “Had I read it before I became prime minister, I might have made a better job of it.”

We pay a price in the world by allowing people to get into leadership roles when they have had no introduction to leadership or development at all.

Do you have any final words of wisdom for our readers?

I think this is the greatest sentence ever written on leadership: “The task of a leader is not to put greatness into people, but to draw it out, because the greatness is there already.”

That’s what a true leader thinks. We have a responsibility to the world to play a leading part in growing and developing good leaders and leaders for good. ILM has a special responsibility to take up this flag – there’s nobody else who’s going to do it.


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