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John Adair: The rise of the new leader


IMAGENAMEIn the current turbulent times, strong and focused leadership is set to become more important, but how do we get there? Leadership development guru John Adair advocates a radical change in current thinking. Speaking to Louise Druce, he asserts that the 21st century leader needs to be a blend of Western, Eastern and tribal traditions.


There is no such thing as a born leader, according to John Adair, a pioneer and one of the world's leading authorities on leadership development. He believes leadership learning is for life but the problem when it comes to training is many myths still exist about what actually makes a good leader in the first place.

The three fallacies Adair dismisses are that leadership is male, military and Western. He believes these have arisen because the West is still dogged by a leadership style defined in the US, when in fact successful leadership is based on a body of knowledge from three traditions: Western, Eastern and tribal.

Photo of John Adair"I'm a great believer that you should come up through the ranks and do your time actually training or instructing people in leadership. You can work on being a strategist later on."

John Adair

He also believes a global revolution is taking place with a "fundamental and universal" shift from the old downsizing, cost-cutting, command and control style of management to the concept of business leadership that began in earnest in the early 1980s.

However, since then, there has been an overload of information on leadership, not least via the thousands of books written on the subject and the internet. "A lot of people have got confused by it all," he says. "They think they don't know what leadership is. They don't know if it's alright just to make it up yourself.

"In the post-modernist age, there is no belief there is something called truth, whereas over the last 50 years a body of knowledge has developed. If we apply it, it works. There is just too much ignorance of what leadership is and how to develop it."

In search of the truth

Consequently, he suggests the massive leadership industry built up to cater to the demands for leadership is just not delivering the goods.

In the UK, there are centres set up for leadership in every part of public life and in the birthplace of current leadership practices, the US, spend on leadership development is an estimated $40bn a year. However, while it is big business, Adair says it is built on sand. "A lot of leadership development is ineffective and a great deal of money has been wasted," he laments.

"The big heresy of our times, fuelled by America but also strong is this country, is that all you have to do is get the top level right. Lots of organisations have poured 80% of their resources and money into the top 10-20% of people and they've forgotten the rest. That's wrong. That's ignorance. What we know is that you have to have excellence at all levels and work as a team."

"The big heresy of our times is that all you have to do is get the top level right."

Compounding the problem is that directors, chief executives and even people heading up leadership programmes, such as HR, are not clear about the contents and methods of leadership development. "Many have never had experience of training leaders and that means their knowledge base is shaky – they never really know what works and what doesn't and they have to get it out of books or conferences," says Adair.

"I'm a great believer that you should come up through the ranks and do your time actually training or instructing people in leadership. You can work on being a strategist later on."

He also argues the same could be said of some trainers. "Everything starts with the trainer," Adair explains. "Although there are many people who have set up as trainers, there is a shortage of people who can really deliver effective leadership development. As well as good basic [delivery] skills, they need to know more about the subject than they're teaching, then they have to be good at the methodology of leadership.

"You learn by doing and experience, and by developing an awareness and understanding. It's simple but not easy. Many trainers are not up to scratch."

Moving in the right circles

So what does he believe makes a good leader? Adair developed a 'three circles' approach to leadership during what he himself describes as a 'colourful' career. Among his memorable roles, Adair has been a platoon commander in the Scots Guard in Egypt, a deckhand in Hull, an adviser in leadership training at Sandhurst military academy and the world's first professor of leadership studies at the University of Surrey.

In the 1980s, he worked with Sir John Harvey-Jones at ICI, introducing a leadership development strategy that helped change what he calls the "loss-making, bureaucratic giant" into the first British company to make a billion pounds in profit. More recently, China awarded him the title of honorary professor in recognition of his 'outstanding research and contribution in the field of leadership'.

The three circles approach honed in on the question of why one person is perceived to be a leader over others. He contests the traditional answer is that a person has certain leadership qualities. The one most often believed is you must have knowledge as well as technical and professional ability – there is no such thing as a born leader; it is interchangeable. "Churchill was a great leader in wartime but not so good in times of peace," Adair explains.

But it was social psychology studies into group dynamics that proved the real breakthough. "Groups and organisations are unique with different personalities but they have three areas of need that overlap," he explains. "That enabled the identification of key functions that have to be performed."

The circle concepts identified were: task, team and individual. Task involves setting clear goals and objectives, as well as managing and organising the process. Team is about effective interaction, support, shared work and communication within the team and with others. Individual takes into account the varying needs of each person and how an effective leader deals with how they are behaving and feeling. Leadership also exists on different levels: team leadership, operational leadership and strategic leadership.

Once the three circles were identified, they could be applied to training. "If you teach people the generic role of a leader, they have the intelligence and experience to apply it to their own specific form of leadership," says Adair. "You don't have to teach them hundreds of competencies. They build on their own strengths."

Breaking with traditions

Underpinning this, Adair says the future of leadership development lies with blending elements of the Western tradition with those of the Eastern and tribal traditions to create a new level of thinking.

"Leadership and learning go hand in hand and we are just beginning to persuade people that leadership is something you learn throughout your life."

When asked which elements he would extract from each, Adair says from the Western tradition he would take out the idea there is a generic role of the leader – there are qualities and skills needed. From the Eastern approach, he would choose the idea that a true leader also has humility – you don't have to be a great extrovert or egotist, or have the charismatic presence people think are central to leadership. It is more self-effacing. From the tribal camp, he would take integrity and moral soundness, with leaders being carefully chosen and approved by their peers. "It is a great emphasis on involving people in decisions, listening to them and consulting – something we often lose in the West," he adds.

By blending these elements, Adair believes you can unlock the power and potential of individuals. "We need the kind of leadership that can draw greatness out of people to meet problems," he says. "We are looking for good leaders and leaders for good."

But to achieve this, Adair also recognises that while trainers can start to encourage this blended thinking now, it will probably take the next generation to embed it and produce significant results. And because trainers themselves have been exposed to the current culture, there will be a need to 'train the trainers'.

"The Africans have a proverb that a log can lie in water for 10 years but it will never become a crocodile. There are too many people occupying leadership roles throughout the world who are logs, even though they are in the crocodile role," he says.

"Leadership and learning go hand in hand and we are just beginning to persuade people that leadership is something you learn throughout your life," he adds. "People want to be well-led and they will become increasingly intolerant of poor leadership. That's why those organisations that invest in leadership development are not only the wise ones, they are the more successful."

Over a million managers worldwide have taken part in John Adair's Action-Centred Leadership programmes, ideal for companies looking to introduce consistent leadership training, promote a culture of growing future leaders and re-energise their approach to leadership. The one-day course is available between 27 January and 23 June 2009 for £789 + VAT. In addition, trainers can participate in a two-day, intensive accreditation programme to gain the practical tools and techniques used to deliver effective Action Centred Leadership training The course costs £1,650 + VAT and in the first half of 2009 will take place in February and April. Spaces are limited. For further information, please contact John Adair by email or visit or

This feature first appeared on in October.


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