Functional Leadership

Functional types of leadership models focus on what the leader has to do. Unlike the Behavioural Ideals approach, Functional leadership models do not suggest ideal ways of behaving, nor do they match behaviours to circumstances like Situational/Contingency theory. Instead, Functional leadership models focus on the action areas that a leader must address to be effective. The most notable Functional models are John Adair’s Action-Centred Leadership, and Kouzes & Posner’s Five Leadership Practices.

The functional model encourages a leader to think about what they need to do to be successful in their role, simply focusing on the functions that every leader must address.

Action-centred leadership

An example of a functional leadership model is Action Centred Leadership which can also be applied to management as well as leadership.

John Adair has written extensively about this concept, where his thinking emerged from group dynamics and how they form and evolve in the work place. This model provides a blueprint for leadership of any team, group or organisation and is an easy model to remember and apply to your own situation.

There are three main areas of Action Centred Leadership; Task, Team and Individual


Completing the task or challenge faced by the group. This is one of the most commonly associated tasks with leadership but it is important to realise that this should not be a priority, all three are as important as the next.


Creating and maintaining a sense of team or group unity and collective responsibility where the team supports each other in achieving goals and the leader puts the group’s goals ahead of their own priorities.


Ensuring that each individual in the group is able to meet his or her own individual psychological needs and if appropriate physical too. So although leaders have to ensure the group has a collective identity, they also have to help members satisfy their individual needs.

Kouzes & Posner’s Five Leadership Practices

Alternatively, James Kouzes and Barry Posner designed a model after surveying people’s personal experiences with leadership, finding that “good leadership is an understandable and universal process.” Aimed more at high-level leaders like CEOs, they introduced five practices for all leaders to consider.

Challenging the Process explains the importance of being an agent for change, creating opportunities, as well as taking risks, trying experiments and learning from mistakes.  Also, recognising the importance of being prepared to make mistakes and encouraging new ideas flourish.

Inspiring a Shared Vision suggests that leaders should initiate the first steps on a new idea before enlisting others to finalise and bring it to life.  It emphasises visualisation and the use of powerful evocative language to capture the vision in a way that inspires others.

Enabling Others to Act encourages building a spirit of trust, sharing of information and collaboration.  To encourage and initiate this, leaders could share what they believe and, if necessary, show their vulnerability.  This practice is also about delegating power, believing in other people and investing in their training and education.

Modelling the Way is about the leader leading by example.  The key is to define the shared behavioural standards and norms and then exemplify them.

Encouraging the Heart is essentially about praise and celebration.

Even though this is a well-researched model, it largely ignores recent ideas about leadership. It’s fair to say that a more naturally low-profile, contemplative leader would probably find it harder to adopt these behavioural practices than a gregarious visionary leader, so the model may not work for everyone.

In the context of leadership theory, Functional Leadership Models focus on the flexible leadership behaviour. Unlike the Behavioural Ideals approach, the purpose of Functional Models is not to set out ideal ways of behaving, nor does it match behaviour to circumstances as in Situational/Contingency theory.  Rather, the purpose is to outline the responsibilities of a leader.

Adair, J. (1973). Action-Centred Leadership. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kouzes, J., Posner, B., High, B. and Morgan, G. (2013). The Student Leadership Challenge. New York: Wiley.