Literature on leadership

When leadership is discussed in the media it is most frequently focused on particular individuals and much of the leadership literature more generally has focused on individual heroes (1). However, in recent years a literature has emerged that focuses more on distributed or dispersed leadership. This perspective suggests a need for a new kind of public sector leader to respond to the changing context, in which leadership beyond boundaries and beyond spans of authority will become more important (2). There is recognition that the most pressing issues for society are complex and span the remits of many different agencies – now universally referred to as ‘wicked’ issues. These wicked issues can’t be solved by one public sector agency alone and require collaboration between public sector organisations, the private sector, voluntary organisations, communities and individuals. This has raised the question for leadership theorists and practitioners about whether the traditional concept of a leader is still fit for purpose or whether there is a need for a new way to think about the role of a leader and the skills that will be needed.

There are several terms to describe this new type of leadership, including collaborative, collective, contested, distributed and dispersed leadership. Two frameworks in particular have found resonance with local government and helped to frame thinking about different leadership approaches. First, Heifitz’s adaptive leadership model, which he defines as ‘mobilising people to tackle tough problems’ (3, p.15) and, second, Mark Moore’s concept of public value (4), which enables a leader to look beyond immediate pressures to focus on what the public most value and what will add value to the public sphere. Both these approaches call for new sets of leadership skills.


More recently there has been a call for a new breed of leaders from Wilson’s ‘Anti hero project’ (5) which builds on Heifetz’s model (3) where effective leaders avoid being the hero who has to find a solution for every problem. The Anti hero report suggests that the workforce recognise the need for new leadership approaches. In response to a survey, respondents identified the top five leadership characteristics that are currently overvalued as control, charisma, power, financial skills and expertise – all very traditional concepts of leadership – whereas the five key undervalued skills were collaboration, humility, listening, empathy and integrity. It is clear that for leaders to be able to operate in a diverse, collaborative environment, these ‘undervalued’ skills will be the ones that will produce results. Similarly, recent work by the Public Sector People Managers’ Association (PPMA), concludes that:

From our interviews [with chief executives and HR directors in a range of local service organisations] it is clear that there is widespread belief that public services can only be more responsive to the needs of service users if employees on the front line are trusted to innovate and empowered to act with more autonomy. This requires a fundamental culture change away from traditional command and control models of leadership to one in which leadership is distributed across organisations (6, p.4).

In order to achieve this, leaders clearly need to be confident (and humble) enough to ‘let go’ and enable this distribution of power to front line workers.

SOLACE, who represent local authority chief executives, have been developing a framework for the skills that future council chief executives will need. They have described these as ‘contextual’ skills:

  • Leading place and space: acting as the advocate, hub, facilitator and supporter of all aspects of the development of their community. This means more than just managing and contributing to partnership working – it requires creating local identity, community cohesion, balancing priorities and creating ‘whole system’ approaches.
  • Leading during complexity and ambiguity: working without a blueprint, going beyond the management of change and towards new levels of innovation.
  • Leading entrepreneurial organisations: entrepreneurial skills to invent new delivery methods, seek investment opportunities, create and operate organisations that empower staff and have a ‘can do’ culture.
  • Leading through trust: creating a motivational environment where others will have enough trust to follow them, even when the way ahead is not clear (7).

There is a clear picture emerging of the type of leader and the skills set that is needed now, and in future, to tackle society’s wicked issues. What is not yet clear is whether existing development and recruitment processes will enable these types of leaders to emerge.

  • Peck E, Dickinson H. Performing leadership. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; 2009 2009.
  • Peck E, Dickinson H. Managing and leading in inter-agency settings. Bristol: Policy Press; 2008 2008.
  • Heifetz R. Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.1994.
  • Moore MH. Creating public value: strategic management in government. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 1995 1995.
  • Wilson R, Kalman Mezey M, Neilson N. Anti hero – the hidden revolution in leadership and change. OSCA Agency Ltd: 2013.
  • Heifetz R. Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.1994.
  • PPMA and CIPD. Leading culture change: employee engagement and public service transformation London: CIPD: 2012.
  • SOLACE Skills for Local Government and Local Government Association. Asking the right questions. SOLACE: London: 2013.

One thought on “Literature on leadership

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s