What is Public Leadership?

Public Leadership is  about a new way of thinking about leadership


Public leadership has been generally described as “a role where a person holds a public office and serves and guides the community as a whole” for example, a Mayor.  However, it is more than this.  The author, in the introduction to the book “The New Public Leadership Challenge”, which he edited with Keith Grint, defines public leadership is a much more inclusive and meaningful way:

A form of collective leadership in which public bodies and agencies collaborate in achieving a shared vision based on shared aims and values and distribute this through each organisation in a collegiate way which seeks to promote, influence and deliver improved public value as evidenced through sustained social, environmental and economic well-being within a complex and changing context. (Brookes and Grint, 2010: 1)

Thinking Differently

Leadership is about collective activity by communities or groups of people (Grint, 2005a); it is not about the traditional heroic view of the leader.  However, we do not need to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’; leadership theories are cumulative, and clearly, the role of the individual leader is important, but it is not the driving factor.  Thinking in a different way involves an understanding of the complexity of leadership.  Values play a key role in understanding these complexities and in determining the collective vision, goals, objectives and activities that underpin the creation and development of the workforce through strategic and organisational change.  We need to make sense of the theories so that we can apply this thinking in practice.  The best leaders ask the right questions and allow those with the knowledge to suggest the best answers and start with “Why (do we lead)?  Such thinking has rarely featured in leadership theories.

A framework for leadership

Rudyard Kipling’s six honest serving men support a brief analysis of many hundreds of years of  leadership thinking and literature:

I keep six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

and How and Where and Who

(Kipling, 1907)

This review suggests that the ‘who’ question has been dominant for most of our history.  The ‘What’ question emerged more from modernity and industrialisation, along with the ‘when’ and the ‘where’ questions, from the turn of the 20th century.  The ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions are relatively recent schools of thought and thus equate to the challenges of twenty-first-century leadership.  .

Click on each tab below to read a brief synopsis of the history of leadership thinking

The individual leader is the main focus of the ‘who’ question in the sense of ‘the born leader’ and their characteristics or traits.  Historically, these early theories were about military and political leaders; leaders took followers for granted. A relationship between the leader and follower was less important; It has much intuitive appeal.  Although the ancient historical accounts have appeal in themselves, the first real attempt to study the characteristics of individual leadership was that of Thomas Carlyle (1795 – 1881) in his account of the ‘Great Men[1] theory of leadership’ (Carlyle, 1852). This early theoretical perspective viewed individual leaders “as independent agents, able to manipulate the world at will” (Grint, 2005b: 1471). Grint, who undertook a similar analysis differed in his view and argued that leaders socially construct the way in which others view leaders; in other words, they, themselves, construct their sense of the reality, which defines the meaning that society then follows.  The focus on ‘who’ shifted in contemporary understanding in considering the traits that individual leaders (or potential leaders) possessed.  Some have argued that this was a first attempt to characterise an effective leader (Bass et al., 2008).  This argument may be true for the measurement of traits scientifically, but it takes little account of context.

Some theories then began to take account of ‘what’ leaders do and considered the links between task and employee, the leadership style of leaders, and forms of transactional leadership,  increasing exponentially with the enlightenment and emerging modernity. The development accompanied the growing (and relatively new) approach to the study of organisational theories at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  We can, perhaps, look to the latter stages of the industrial revolution to see these beginnings.  Social historians have well illustrated the continuing ‘nasty, brutish and short lives’ (Hobbes and Smith, 1909) of those who worked at the ‘coalface’ of the ‘modern’ industrial world.  The management approaches of the day strongly influenced by Frederick Winslow Taylors’ notion of ‘scientific management’ (Taylor, 1915) with its focus on improving efficiency and Fayol’s principles of management (Fayol, 1930) has a key role in this thinking.  Attention shifted from the ‘nature’ to ‘nurture’ debate, shaping behaviours of people at work (Watson, 1930). Watson saw no dividing line between ‘man’ and ‘brute’ (Watson, 1913).  The seminal ‘Hawthorne Studies’ marked a turning point in considering the role of human behaviour from both an organisational and leadership perspective and led to an interesting observation in a change of motivating factors; people responded positively to being observed (Mayo, 1933).  Leadership styles emerged from this research as an important factor and remain influential today. Examples include, authoritarian (autocratic), participative (democratic) and delegative (Laisez-Faire) (Lewin et al., 1939) and the political, social and psychological dimensions of leadership (Burns, 1978).  Burns distinguished between ‘transactional’ (one person taking the initiative) and ‘transformational’ leadership, arguing that leadership is meaningless without its connection to common purposes and collective needs. However, Burns gave a warning; there is often a bias towards self-interests (or what Bass describes as pseudo-transformational leadership) (Bass and Steidlmeier, 1999).

As leadership theories continued to develop, the importance of context emerged.  There are two primary approaches to the early contextual theories, which are contingency and situational leadership theories.  There is a tendency to conflate these two approaches as if-they-were-one.  While there are clearly some similarities, there are also some significant differences.  Time and situation are part of the currency of leadership which defines the context. ‘When’ is a good question to ask.   Task, relations, and the right contexts form the backdrop.  Both theories put the individual at its heart.  However, contingency theory (Fiedler, 1964), (Cartwright, 1965) and (Tannenbaum and Schmidt, 1957) focuses on the effectiveness of the leader. Contingency theory is based on her individual leadership style and is dependent on the situations that the leader favours. In contrast, situational theory (Stogdill and Coons, 1957) (Blake and Mouton, 1964) (Hersey and Blanchard, 1969) rely on the use of a leader’s individual skills and his ability to lead in a particular situation through differing managerial/leadership grids.  A key difference is that contingency theory focuses on the present situation whereas the attitude and behaviour of the leader determine a situational theory. Both approaches also have different assumptions about followers; contingency theory assumes that all followers will act the same based on the style of the leader whereas situational leaders assume that followers will differ in their responses dependent upon their particular levels of competence, commitment, and maturity.  Both theories are influential, contingency theory having “made a substantial contribution to our understanding of leadership processes”  (Northouse, 1997: 126).  In both cases (contingency and situation), leaders recognise when the right situations occur regarding task and relationships.  However, in the case of situational theory, the maturity of leaders and followers is a controlling factor.  Both approaches help to identify when to intervene with followers and provide insights about effective leadership in different situations and dyadic leadership relationships and have been influential in shaping approaches to flexible, adaptive behaviour (Yukl, 2009).  The approaches are intuitive and simple to understand and widely applied.  However, “there is not a huge empirical base concerning the extent to which leadership development focuses on these aspects nor the study or observation of the processes by which leader’s behaviour influences follower behaviour” (Brookes, 2016: 15).

The history of leadership has shown a close association between the ‘who’ and the ‘where’ questions. At a time of crisis, followers often look to positional leaders and evaluate their behaviour “based on whether they should be believed” (Allen, 2004). The role of positional leadership is thus critical to the reputation of the organisation particularly the association between power, legitimacy, authenticity, and positional leadership.  Power, as we know all too well, can be misused.  There is a wealth of literature on the concept of power.  Lord Acton (Acton et al., 1907) summed up the dangers well[2]:

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still, more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.

Having power is the ability to influence outcomes and achieve goals, outside the realm of direct control, but not necessarily through one’s efforts.  A leader’s right to lead, accepted by the majority based on a principle, rule or lawfulness, represents legitimacy. However, power without recourse or constructive debate can result in the sort of corruption to which Lord Acton refers.  Corruption is not a property of the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Corruption emerged in many of the ‘leadership scandals’ of the contemporary time, such as Enron, world.com, and Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust. In many cases, the ‘position’ of the leader within the organisation provides the ‘authority’ of leadership (Grint, ibid).  However, leadership can be either formal or informal or undertaken ‘with’ or ‘without’ authority (Heifetz, 1994).

Contemporary studies need a more empirical approach to looking at how leaders fulfil their role, taking more account of the global context of leadership.  This thinking views leadership as a shared and distributed process, which encourages learning. Understanding leadership in this way is a relatively recent approach. Pearce and Conger tell us that “the dynamics and opportunities for shared leadership remain quite primitive” (Pearce and Conger, 2003). Heifetz (1994) says that it is in the process of leadership that its effective evaluation can take place.  Leading in a complex world requires both shared, and distributed leadership and intelligent leadership sits at the heart of this (Brookes, 2011).  Collective leadership – through networks – is focused on shared beliefs, values, and identities (Western, 2007).  Viewing leadership as a process holds promise in addressing the all-important ‘how’ question.  By engaging with wider stakeholders, some benefits emerge.  First and foremost, is that a leadership ‘community’ can mitigate the flaws of individual leaders (the ‘who’), the way in which they lead (the ‘what’) and the limitations of individual leader’s position (the ‘where’).  It can also take account of the best time to intervene (the ‘when’) and define the steps to take (the ‘how’).  Pearce and Conger’s work about shared leadership has emerged as an important contribution to the leadership debate. They contend that demands on leaders have changed with a focus on performance improvement targets.  Particular leadership skills include creativity and problem solving based on enhanced cross-organisational dialogue, including learning conversations.  At the core is the acceptance of relational processes, as there is nothing that a leader or group of leaders does that does not involve relationships in one form or another. This collective approach to leadership is not easy. Business and public service are not undertaken between companies but between people. There is a need to address competing values (Cameron and Quinn, 2006), and it remains a huge challenge to get over the ‘WIFM’ factor (what’s-in-it-for-me).  In such cases:

Whether people are open enough to say it or not, every one of us in every relationship or interaction is focused on a single question: ‘‘What’s in it for me?’’ (Bonfante, 2011: 83).

Responding to the question ‘why’ do leaders lead, involves aims of inspiring, motivating or stimulating others to achieve a given end; in other words, it is about transforming individual efforts towards a shared vision (Bass et al., 2008). Burns earlier described transformational leadership as occurring when “one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality(Burns, 1978:20) within the context of a ‘higher purpose’. In asking the ‘why’ question, this is important. Transformational leadership differs from transactional leadership. It is a new paradigm for the study of leadership.   Research indicates that a transformational culture is more successful than a transactional one when measured against the organisational vision, information sharing, quality assurance, customer satisfaction, and working with others (Avolio and Bass, 1994).  There is a danger that the focus again is linked to the traits of individual leaders (for instance, with an emphasis on charisma and inspiration rather than integrity and consistency). Moreover, most studies are US based, focus on ‘distant’ leadership and ignore the impact of ‘nearby’ leadership (Alimo-Metcalfe and Alban-Metcalfe, 2005: 32).  Collective leadership focuses on the alignment between both ‘distant’ and ‘nearby’ leadership.  As Bass argued (acknowledged by Alimo-Metcalfe and Alban-Metcalfe), the “’founders’ and successors’ leadership shape a culture of shared values and assumptions, guided and constrained by their personal beliefs” (Bass and Avolio, 1994: 62-3)(Bass 1998:62-3).  Bass also said that what is needed is for leaders to promote and live a strong vision and a sense of purpose, based on long-term commitments and mutual interests and developing shared norms that are adaptive, and respond to changes in the external environment.  In a later seminal and influential discussion, Kotter refers to the need to transform individual efforts towards a shared vision (Kotter, 2012).

[1] At this point in time, there was no effort to explore the role of women as ‘great leaders’

[2] Letter to Mandell Creighton (5 April 1887), published in Historical Essays and Studies, by John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (1907), edited by John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, Appendix, p. 504.