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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

Introducing the Functions of Leadership (Part 1, The Basics)

Welcome to The Basics. Check out the poster for this section here:

The Basics Posters - Functions
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Our goal here is to introduce the functions of leadership, explain why they are important, and then show how they occur in the group. This is the core of ReDefine approach to leadership.

And it all begins with a simple question.

Most leadership development begins with the question, "What do great leaders do?" But there are several problems with this question. It assumes what works for one leader works for another, and that we want to lead in exactly the same way as other leaders. It assumes we've accurately identified the causes of a leader's success. It assumes we successfully translate this cause into our own behaviors in the real world. And it ignores the reality right in front of us: our own group and leadership challenge.

So let's look at the world in front of us and ask, "What does this group need to be excellent?" There are three answers to this question. These are things that the members of every group need so that they can work together. The three answers are:

  1. a personal understanding of the work and its importance, or vision

  2. productive interactions over time, or relationships

  3. the potential to experiment with new and better ways to perform tasks, or learning

These three answers are the three functions of leadership. The functions exist – take place, occur, go on – in each member of the group all the time. Human beings do each of these things constantly, on their own. Each person makes meaning from their work, creating a vision. Each person repeats behaviors and develops explanations for others’ behaviors. Each person experiments with new ways to interact with others – or does not, as the case might be.

These three things are a necessary part of multiple people working together. They allow a group of humans to divide the total work into individual tasks, perform these tasks, and then combine the results into the shared final product of the organization. These three functions also define what is possible for the group. When the functions work properly, then the group succeeds. They are like the machinery that allows human beings to work together on a single, combined output. This is why we don't notice them: they are so obvious that we overlook their existence.

When we connect the three functions, we create the definition of leadership:

Leadership is the process of learning to build relationships to make a shared vision become real.

In other words, leadership is when we act upon these functions to guide the group towards success. We observe and ask questions to see if members have what they need for each function. Where they lack a certain element, we intervene to add what is required. We direct the three functions towards the organization's goals, which creates excellence in the work of each member.

Without leadership, the functions produce individual-focused outcomes. Visions are based on personal perspectives, relationships serve individual needs, and new behaviors benefit individuals. For a group to produce an excellent combined output, these functions must be guided towards a single, common direction. Leadership is the role of providing the inputs and interventions that accomplish this redirection.

The reason that these functions need to be guided towards productive outcomes, rather than allowed to continue without leadership, is that they define and create limits for what the group can achieve. In a theoretical universe completely devoid of leadership, group outcomes would be determined solely by chance combinations of individual preferences and desires. In an equally mythical world with perfect leadership, leaders would identify every place where the functions do not create excellence in the collective output and intervene to redirect them towards that outcome. Every group would produce a perfect product or service.

In the real world, people who occupy positions of “leadership” intervene at times, based on the experiences that brought them to be promoted to those positions. Members of the group at times receive what they need to complete their tasks, and at times struggle to get those things from other members. Individuals generally feel positive about the group. The group achieves moderate success because the functions are sometimes, but not always, guided towards the organization's goals.

Our responsibility as leaders is to be capable of acting upon the functions. We want to see the functions, understand the impact certain aspects have upon group performance, and decide where it is most important to intervene. This gives us a strategy and a desired outcome for our activities as leaders, and we can assess and adjust course as needed. When we can do this, then we can make incremental steps to improve the group’s performance.

The definition of leadership is a tool we use to describe and connect all three functions. At its most basic, the definition is a reminder to pay attention to what is relevant to our success as leaders and not be distracted by things that will not help us. It is like a mnemonic or memory aid. Because one of the largest challenges of leadership is seeing the functions, the definition is a critical reminder to pay attention when they slip our minds. I highly recommend that you write it down somewhere unobtrusive so that you see it and think about it on a regular basis.

The big things to remember about the functions are that they occur whether or not leadership influences them because they are part of how human beings work together, and that without a positive influence from leadership, the functions limit the group’s potential.

Now that we understand the basic concept of the functions of leadership and the definition, we can explore the details of each function. We start with vision, or the connection between individual tasks and a meaningful change in the world, in The Function of Vision (Part 2, The Basics).

But first! We must practice finding answers to the question, "What does the group need?" To do so, we begin with our first SEEING EXERCISE, Part 1 of The Functions in Action. We will return to Part 2 of this activity at the end of the series, so write down a few notes and put them somewhere safe.

Check out the rest of The Basics:

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