There’s a leader persona, and then there’s the work leaders do. Functional leadership theory is associated with leaders getting the work done in a way that maximizes organizational effectiveness. As per this theory, it’s the responsibility of the leader to bring about group cohesion and effectiveness. To achieve this end, the leader must do everything necessary.

It may be interesting to note that the functional approach to leadership isn’t the prerogative of any one leader; it’s a set of effective leader behaviors. They get the work done. This means that in functional leadership theory, the emphasis is on the ‘what’ instead of the ‘who’.

The functional approach to leadership can also be seen in job positions where individuals have a fair degree of autonomy. Irrespective of rank, they play an important role in bringing about organizational cohesion and efficiency. This shows that under the right circumstances, any individual can become a functional leadership example.


  1. John Adair’s Action-Centred Leadership Model

  2. Kouzes and Posner’s Five Leadership Practices

  3. Functional Leadership Advantages and Disadvantages


There are several models of functional leadership. Let’s discuss a couple of important ones.


John Adair’s Action-Centred Leadership Model


One of the best-known functional leadership models is John Adair’s Action-Centred Leadership model (ACL). This model has three overlapping circles: task, team, and individual. The underlying principles are:

  • The task can be completed through a collective effort of a team and not by any single individual
  • The team performs well when all individuals have achieved full potential and act cohesively
  • The individuals need the task to stay focused and motivated

It’s the intersection of these three that helps arrive at functional leadership’s best behaviors.

Adair determined eight functions lead to the successful completion of any task:

  1. Defining the task: The functional leadership definition demands that the task has SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound) goals. A clear definition of the end goals of any task helps streamline the process.
  2. Planning: Any task can encounter hurdles. It’s important to have alternative ways in which it can be accomplished. Planning helps put in place a contingency strategy.
  3. Briefing the team: All members of a team involved in a specific task must be informed about their roles. Successful cross-functional leadership requires creating the right working environment, providing motivation and encouraging teamwork.
  4. Controlling what happens: Control is the benchmark of cross-functional leadership efficiency. Leaders can set functional leadership examples by controlling processes to ensure that maximum results are achieved using the minimum resources. 
  5. Evaluating results: Timely evaluation helps assess the efficacy of the teams and individuals. It also helps identify measures to improve performance.
  6. Motivating individuals: Leaders must motivate individuals both externally through rewards and incentives and internally through self-motivation tactics. In addition, six principles can help motivate others: being self-motivated, selecting highly motivated individuals, providing just rewards, recognizing contribution, setting challenging but achievable targets and remembering that progress motivates people.
  7. Organizing people: Good leaders not only organize themselves, but they also help organize others around a common objective. They help people with time-management tactics, personal development advice and delegation of work.
  8. Setting an example: The functional leadership definition demands leading by example and for good reason. People tend to follow and emulate their leaders.

Recently, ACL as a model of functional leadership has faced a lot of criticism because of its simplistic approach. Developed in the 1970s, it’s considered by some to be outdated. However, this model of functional leadership opened people’s eyes to the fact that leaders can be made. They need not be born with leadership traits.


Kouzes and Posner’s Five Leadership Practices


Another model of functional leadership is Kouzes and Posner’s Five Leadership practices. Kouzes and Posner conducted vast research studying people’s personal experiences and concluded that “good leadership is an understandable and universal process”. This model aims at leaders in the top echelons of organizations. Here are the five practices:

Challenging the Process

While it’s important to get results, functional leaders look for new and uncharted ways of doing things. They foster the change and innovation mindset and encourage people to take risks. They’re open to people making mistakes and learning from them. This helps leaders create new opportunities for employees.

Inspiring a Shared Vision

Inspired action often achieves great results. Leaders who are eloquent and can initiate a new idea by sharing their vision with the team can galvanize them into taking action.

Enabling Others to Act

Simply providing a brief isn’t sufficient at most times. Teams and individuals need all the resources to perform to the best of their abilities. It’s the leader’s prerogative to ensure information and instruments of collaboration are at the disposal of team members. Leaders inspire trust through such actions. They can also share their vulnerabilities, if needed, with the team. Leaders must also arrange for training opportunities to enhance the team’s potential.

Modeling the Way

Leaders must ensure the standard of behavior and norms are known by all. Moreover, they must embody these standards and follow these norms themselves to ensure others follow their lead.

Encouraging the Heart

People are sentimental beings. Appreciation and celebration of achievements mean a lot to them and leaders benefit from remembering this.

Amongst leadership theories, the functional leadership theory is associated with flexibility in leadership behaviors. The purpose of the functional leadership model is to outline the key responsibilities of the leader.


Functional Leadership Advantages and Disadvantages


An advantage of having functional leaders is that employees don’t have to report to multiple managers. Moreover, the communication channel is shortened as the flow of information takes place with just one functional leader. This saves time and also prevents miscommunication. Sometimes, though, having functional leaders may isolate domain specialists, leading to an undesirable communication gap. However, if the functional leader is resourceful and agile, they‘ll ensure that such a problem doesn’t occur.

Harappa’s Unlock Leadership course is aligned with the ideals of functional leadership theory. It’s a five-course pack that arms individuals with a creative thinking process so they can find multiple solutions for the same problem and straddle the same solution across different problems.

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