Action Centered Leadership™
The Three Circles Model: Balancing Task, Team and Individual Focus
As a team leader, you likely tackle many competing demands. Sometimes, though, the task, problem or person that "shouts loudest" grabs your attention, while other important areas are sidelined or ignored.
It can be hard to step back and think about your full range of responsibilties, and to consider the specific actions that you need to take to achieve your goals.
The Action Centered Leadership™ model can make this difficult juggling act a little easier. It identifies three key areas that leaders need to focus on, and offers a framework for keeping them in balance. And it may even help you to avoid dropping any balls along the way!
In this article, we look at Action Centered Leadership in more detail, and explore how you can apply it to your own situation.
What Is Action Centered Leadership (ACL)?
Action Centered Leadership (ACL, or the "Three Circles Model") is a popular and influential tool that was first published in 1973 by leadership expert, John Adair.
It highlights the core actions that you must take to lead your team effectively, rather than the leadership style that you choose. These actions are grouped into three areas:
- Task: the actions that you take to achieve a goal.
- Team: your actions at the group level, to encourage effective teamwork and group cohesion.
- Individual: actions that address each team member's unique needs.
These areas are represented by three interlocking circles, as shown in figure 1, below.
Figure 1 – John Adair's Action Centered Leadership Model.
The Three Circles model is reproduced here with the kind permission of John Adair and Adair International Ltd.
The shaded areas of the interlocking circles show that each area relies on one or both of the others for success. So, to be an effective leader, you must balance your actions across all three areas of responsibility.
In practice, achieving balance isn't always easy. For example, you may face intense pressure to hit sales or production targets. But if you prioritize the task at the expense of the team and the individuals who are working hard to achieve it, problems can arise in those neglected areas.
For example, let's say that your team works well together, but one person is falling behind schedule. As a result, productivity declines, the team misses its deadline, and group morale suffers. Here, issues with the individual negatively impact the task and the team.
Now, imagine what would happen if you, as leader, didn't clearly state your team's goal. Your team members are highly skilled, and they collaborate well, but progress is slow because no one knows what they're aiming for. In this example, individual and team needs are being met, but the task itself is being ignored, and the team is likely heading for failure.
Action Centered Leadership in Practice
Action Centered Leadership is simple to use, and it can be adapted to any leadership situation. There are three stages to the model: develop your core leadership skills, focus on the three key areas of responsibility, and adapt the model to your situation.
1. Develop Your Core Leadership Skills
Action Centered Leadership can be applied to every level of an organization, not just to the top tier. However, Adair and his colleague David Faraday state that, for the model to be effective, leaders at different levels need to develop particular leadership skills.
Team leaders need planning and briefing skills. They must define tasks and exert control. They should support and motivate their team members, and evaluate their performance effectively. Team leaders should lead by example.
Operational leaders need to influence and inform their teams, interpret goals and results, and initiate plans and projects. They must have the skills necessary to implement decisions, to network, and to plan successions.
Strategic leaders need all of the above skills, and more. They "make things happen," and provide direction and inspiration. Ideally, they work toward Transformational Leadership. This means that they understand – and articulate – the organization's mission, and how the work of each team and individual feeds into the organization's wider goals. They must build partnerships and develop potential leaders in order to be successful.
To explore these aspects of leadership, and to assess your own development needs, check out our Leadership Skills toolkit.
2. Focus on the Three Key Areas of Responsibility
Next, think carefully about the actions you take as a leader, and the extent to which each of these activities applies to the three key areas: task, team and individual.
You can visualize this by drawing your own three circles diagram. Draw each circle in proportion to the amount of attention that you give to each area.
For example, let's say that you do a great job of developing your team members as individuals, but that you pay little attention to team dynamics. Your team usually gets the job done, but not always to the standard you'd like.
In this example, your circles might look like those in figure 2, below.
Figure 2 – Real-Life Example of an Action Centered Leadership Diagram.
The Three Circles model is a trademark of John Adair and Adair International Ltd. Reproduced with permission.
You can then work toward dividing your time more equally between each area of responsibility.
There are a number of ways to fulfill each area of responsibility. Use the following lists as a guide, and add or remove tasks based on your own circumstances.
Achieve the Task
As a leader, your role is to direct a team toward achieving its goal. Here are some of the actions you can take to do this:
- Identify and define your team's tasks, priorities and purpose, and communicate them clearly.
- Create plans – including timescales, measures, strategies, and deliverables, as appropriate.
- Define "success."
- Allocate resources, tools and processes, and ensure that everyone understands them.
- Set and explain quality, timeliness and reporting standards.
- Control the pace of work.
- Monitor and evaluate performance.
- Review and report on progress.
Build the Team
These actions can enable your team to work more effectively as a unit:
- Set group behavior and performance standards.
- Make sure that everyone has the necessary skills, training and ability.
- Monitor team relationships, and manage conflict.
- Facilitate and encourage effective communication.
- Motivate the group.
- Encourage team building, and foster team spirit.
- Give feedback on the team's performance.
- Identify the team's culture, and its working style.
- Alter group composition.
It's essential to understand the unique needs, fears and motivations of each of your team members. Here are some strategies for doing so:
- Clearly define each person's role and tasks.
- Support individuals to plan their own development.
- Allocate time with each team member for assessment, and identify their personality and behavioral styles, their strengths and weaknesses, their aims and needs, and any special skills or experience they can bring to the team.
- Encourage quieter team members to contribute, and control more enthusiastic individuals.
- Offer coaching and support.
- Give regular, constructive feedback.
- Praise and reward individuals for their contribution.
3. Adapt the Model to Your Situation
The real-world demands of leadership mean that you won't always be able to balance your efforts across the three areas equally. In fact, the most appropriate balance varies according to the situation, and over time.
You might, for example, have a new team member who requires more coaching. You may lead a completely new group, and need to focus on team formation. Or, you might have a crucial deadline that gives you no choice but to focus solely on the task.
When all three areas of responsibility compete for your attention, you'll have to prioritize. Start by considering your organization's goals. But remember that there may be times when the needs of the team or an individual can take precedence – for example, when a team member suffers ill health or a bereavement, or when the team experiences a major setback, such as a catastrophic data loss.
Use your judgment to decide what balance of responsibilities works best at that point in time, and adjust your focus accordingly. The key is to limit your change in focus to the short term, and to restore the balance when the matter is resolved.
Leaders have many responsibilities, and it's easy to focus on one area at the expense of the others. This can lead to poor performance, unhappy staff, and a loss of team cohesion.
Action Centered Leadership is a simple model that can help you to keep the three key areas of responsibility – task, team and individual – in balance.
The model is applied in three stages:
- Develop the core skills necessary for your level of leadership.
- Focus on your key responsibilities, and identify the actions that you need to take in order to fulfill them.
- Accept that the "correct" balance of responsibilities may vary according to your circumstances. Limit any change in focus to the short term, and return to a more balanced focus as soon as you can.
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