How to be an Action-Centred Leader

action centred leadership model
Photo by juan mendez from Pexels

Action-centred management explained: task, team, individual and PICSIE

It seemed I was surrounded by things that wanted to harm me. There were spiders in the bushes, poisonous snakes in the trees and scorpions underfoot. I was being bitten by insects, fried by the heat, and scratched by thorns. It was therefore an unexpected opportunity to test a leadership model. Testing some theoretical approach was not at the forefront of my mind just then though. I was too busy getting flayed by the local flora and fauna.

My machete sang as I cut the track through the jungle undergrowth. The noise startled a toucan and I looked up to catch the orange flash of its sabre beak darting through the trees above. I took the moment to pause, wipe the sweat from my brow and take a sip of water. It tasted of iodine. Not a great taste (or that healthy) but the choice was iodine or some horrific waterborne disease. By the time I had put my water bottle back the sweat was beading on my forehead again. It was as if I had sprung a leak and the water I had just ingested was simply pouring out again.

I glanced behind me to check on the group. There were seven people trailing behind me. Good. All accounted for. 

Management beyond the office

Everyone shared the slightly wilted look that came from hours of physical labour in this level of humidity. Judging by the amount of dirt that covered us you might have thought we had been mud wrestling rather than searching for archaeological remains. The story of the day was written in the glum expressions of the team. We had not found anything. Yet.

My Amerindian guide, Martus, caught my eye, smiled, and gave me a tiny nod of the head. Without a word, he stepped up to take point cutting the route. I fell in behind him and the rest of the team moved forward again, mimicking the caterpillars inching their way across the jungle floor. I zoned out for a few minutes, lost in my thoughts until I heard an exclamation from Martus. 

He was at the edge of a clearing and pointing to a hill that blocked our route. Great, I thought, another hill. But Martus was smiling. I looked again and saw a dark patch; there was a tunnel leading into the hillside. As my eyes adjusted, I could make out cut stones that formed the sides of the tunnel. I then realised why Martus was excited. It was not a hill; it was a Mayan ruin, a very big one; shrowded by hundreds of years of foliage.

The action-centred leader

I had grown up dreaming of being Indiana Jones and now I was living out that dream in the jungles of Central America. My long summer break at university allowed me the time to take part in this archaeological expedition.

As well as learning a lot about ancient history (and tarantulas), I was quickly growing as a leader. It was a new level of responsibility for me. I was leading one of three small teams, deep in the forest, many hours from the nearest civilisation. The teams shared a common camp but each day the groups would head out into the forest in different directions. 

I had scant theoretical or practical leadership experience up until that point and therefore I leaned heavily on the little I had been taught. The only leadership model I knew was the action-centred leadership model. I can still recall the lesson I had on this in school and can picture the three interlocking circles – the summary of this approach – projected onto a screen. 

The model was developed by John Adair. He taught military leadership at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and so was well versed in teaching management with hostile environments in mind. I considered this knowledge reassuring, even though I was dodging hornets at the time, rather than enemy soldiers, in the jungle.

The three core management responsibilities

The action-centred leadership style is about balancing the needs of three core management responsibilities:

  1. The Task – achieving the defined goal or mission 
  2. The Team – managing the defined group selected to achieve the task
  3. The Individual – making sure that each person who makes up the team and every role is considered and supported

These three elements are best represented as a Venn diagram (as in the attached illustration) where they become three interlocking balls or circles. The point is that each element is dependent upon, and affects the others. 

John Adair's Action-Centred Leadership Model
The Action-Centred Leadership Model (Adair)

This was the picture that I recalled and used to manage my team in the jungle.

Putting the action into action-centred leadership

The expedition was mostly made up of college students led by two official leaders. We, the students, were mostly the same age but my love of the woods, outdoors experience and my scholarship with the Army must have shone through as – when the group expanded – the expedition leaders made me the unofficial leader of the new third work team. This team comprised of me, six other students and one local guide.

Our task was relatively simple, at least in theory. We were tasked with finding and mapping the plethora of Mayan remains that lay hidden in a portion of the dense forests of Central America. These remains usually manifested as small mounds and the local Chicleros (harvesters of chicle gum) served as our guides. The trees were their livelihood and so the Chicleros had an intimate knowledge of the forest. When we found a site, we marked it with GPS (Global Positioning System) and at the end of each day, when we returned to camp, we uploaded our data to create a Geographic Information System (GIS) of Mayan habitation.

As we started this work, I was given the chance to get to know the individuals of my team. When not cutting a track through the forest, I consciously spent time walking with different members of the group so I could chat and get to know them more. Even though we were all students of about the same age we were mixed in terms of gender, nationality, and subject speciality. More importantly, given the environment, everyone had different levels of experience and confidence in the jungle. I had grown up going into the woods, cooking on open fires, camping out and exploring. For others in the team, this was their first time sleeping outside of four brick walls. Therefore, I tailored how I developed, tasked and supported team members based on their confidence and abilities.

The Action Centred Leadership Model

PICSIE management

So, the three management functions gave me a good foundation for leading and developing my team. In addition, there was a useful mnemonic (also devised by John Adair) that helped remind me of what I needed to do each day as a leader. I remembered these core functions with the help of P.I.C.S.I.E (pronounced ‘pixie’).

PICSIE stands for:

  • Plan 
  • Initiate 
  • Control 
  • Support 
  • Inform 
  • Evaluate 

Using this framework my days would go something like this:


I would get up at dawn and start the fire ready for breakfast. As I did this I would make a plan. First, I would chat with the other leaders and decide on the areas we would cover that day. I would then talk to Martus about route finding and work out what resources we would need as a team.


After making the plan (and some porridge) I would initiate the task by communicating the plan to the team. We would then make our final preparations and set off.


Once underway I kept control. This was not by being domineering, just making sure that we stayed together, on the route and on task. I would also measure our progress against the plan. 


As we progressed, I would support individuals and the team. If the team was flagging, I would call for a short break. If an individual was struggling, then I would walk beside them and give them some help and encouragement. 


We did not have regular contact with the other teams, but I worked hard to maintain internal communications and inform my group. As we came across obstacles, archaeological finds or other points of interest I would pass the message down the line. Lunch stops provided a chance for a large sharing of information and any changes to the plan.


As I assessed our progress during the day, I had to evaluate the plan against the reality of the environment. Sometimes we might cover 1000 metres in an hour. Sometimes we would barely manage 100 metres.  I would also have to keep an eye on the energy levels of the team, changes to the weather or any other factors that might affect the plan. This led to the continual evaluation of the plan and occasional adaptation when necessary.

Keep it simple stupid

These simple leadership principles allowed me to lead my team effectively throughout the expedition. All I needed to remember were the three balls of task, team and individual, and to apply the acronym PICSIE.

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” 

Albert Einstein

In the military people often used the acronym KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid. In other words, don’t overcomplicate things. John Adair applied this principle when he developed the action-centred leadership style and this is why it has served me well, not just in the jungle, but through my whole career. You don’t have to be in a threatening environment for this style of leadership to be helpful. 

If you have never thought of using a theoretical leadership framework before, then I would recommend you start with this one. If you are already well versed in other leadership styles, then I would implore you; don’t overlook this great model. 

So have a think about what you are doing today. How are you balancing the needs of the taskteam and individuals that you manage?

Would you like a free e-book to help you set goals and create a personal action plan? Then just subscribe to my newsletter. Don’t miss out; sign up here!

4 thoughts on “How to be an Action-Centred Leader

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.