Author Spotlight: John Adair

John Adair

John Adair is one of the world’s leading authorities on leadership and leadership development. He is a teacher of leadership and an author of 50 books, which have been translated into 18 languages. Since 2006, he has been Honorary Professor of Leadership at the China Executive Leadership Academy in Shanghai. In 2009, he was appointed Chair of Leadership Studies at the United Nations Staff College in Turin.

John has had a colourful early career. He served as a platoon commander in the Scots Guards in Egypt, and then became the only national serviceman to serve in the Arab Legion, where he became adjutant of a Bedouin regiment. After national service he qualified as a deckhand in Hull and worked on an arctic trawler in Iceland waters. He then worked as a hospital orderly in the operating theatre of a hospital.

After working as Senior Lecturer in Military History and Adviser in Leadership Training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and Associate Director of The Industrial Society, in 1979 John became the world’s first Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Surrey.

Between 1981 and 1986 John worked with Sir John Harvey-Jones at ICI introducing a leadership development strategy that helped to change the loss-making, bureaucratic giant into the first British company to make a billion pounds profit.

You’ve been contributing to the field of leadership for a long time now – have you seen any dramatic changes in the way we approach leadership?

Nothing dramatic but there are certainly some gradual changes. For example, when I first came on the scene most people shared an unconscious assumption; that leadership is male, military and Western. There are perhaps some grains of truth in all of this assumption but not very many!

Another example of an inhibiting assumption was the belief that ‘leaders are born and not made’. In other words, leadership can’t be taught – you’ve either got it or you haven’t. 

In Lessons in Leadership I have outlined the breakthroughs in our understanding of leadership from the last 50 years or so, which have now bypassed the two above assumptions and made effective training for leadership possible.

Although the armed forces have made full use of those breakthroughs with good effect over several decades, the same cannot be said for society at large.

That is the main reason why we have yet to see any dramatic changes in the quality of leadership that people experience – or endure – at work.

What about the leadership traits that you don’t think have changed?

Actually, the qualities associated with authentic leaders – the qualities which people expect those occupying a leadership role to have – are remarkably timeless. Human nature doesn't change too much over the centuries, and our body of knowledge about leadership emerges really from the study of what kind of leadership works best with the grain of human nature.

We do tend to analyse leadership into a spectrum of qualities, not all of which are personal traits. My own indicative list includes: Enthusiasm, Integrity (the quality that makes people trust you), Toughness, Fairness, Warmth, and last but not least, Humility

With a background like yours, it’s safe to say your route to leadership has not been as linear as others’ might be. Are there any key moments from your past roles that inspired you to delve more deeply into the world of leadership, or changed the way you thought about what an effective leader has to be?

Yes – the most important of those key moments occurred one hot day in the Canal Zone when, as a National Service officer, I was in command of a squad of Scots Guardsmen laying barbed wire in the desert. That moment, which I describe more fully in the book, I single out here as it gave me the first germ of the idea that led to the Three-Circles Model, the breakthrough I mentioned that later would make it possible to effectively train young people in leadership.

What would you say are the leadership lessons we need to be taught from a young age?

Boys and girls encounter leadership in their school years, though not just at school – in the family and sometimes (as in my case) in neighbourhood gangs (I grew up in the Just William era). We all know that by their example – whether good or bad – parents and teachers cannot avoid teaching leadership (or misleadership) to the young.

In my experience, sowing the seeds of confidence and a sense of responsibility for others are best done in the early years, as they are both necessary conditions for leadership in later life.

To these fundamentals I would add the following shopping list of lessons:

  • Both boys and girls, men and women, are not just embodied individuals, they are persons;

  • Leadership is about getting free and equal persons to work together and to achieve great things;

  • All persons are entitled to respect;

  • You don’t have to be loud, dominant, bossy or shout at others to be a leader. Some of the best leaders are calm and quiet: they do what they say they will do and they get things done;

  • You are all leaders, for each of us has our own life to lead and each of us will influence others for good or ill.

You can see why some enlightened schools are beginning to introduce discussions and even practical leadership exercises into the school curriculum. I think we should be encouraging that development, don't you?

Both Lessons in Leadership and How to Lead Others are available on