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Gemma Carmichael on What is ‘good’ public service leadership?

The study of leadership within public services has evolved significantly over the last twenty years. During this time various theories and models of leadership have been developed in order to understand not only the nature of leadership but what successful - or good - leadership looks like. This study provides an overview of this journey and seeks to discover an understanding into what good leadership is perceived to look like in public services today. In doing so, this research finds that ‘good’ leadership within public services is increasingly understood to be transformative and strategic in contrast to more traditional forms of leadership borne of heroism.

Key findings:

  • There is a collective rejection of the role of ‘heroic’ styles of leadership within some of the literature.
  • Leadership is not borne of a character trait, but rather can be developed in individuals.
  • A key aspect of ‘good’ leadership is a positive relationship between a leader and followers. 
  • Leadership is necessary for the creation and implementation of vision within an organisation.
  • The role of leadership has become more important in a de-centralised, strategic state.
  • Leadership is essential to driving public service reform.


Over the last century, questions such as ‘what is leadership?’, ‘what makes a good leader?’ and ‘what are the benefits of leadership?’ have been explored and many have asked these questions in relation public services. This project uses ‘integrative review’ to analyse four core texts within the area of public service leadership and academic thinking. It draws out persistent themes within the literature and demonstrates how it contributes to understandings around leadership within public services.

What we knew already

Historically, leadership had been theorised as a collection of character ‘traits’ (such as heroism and bravery) possessed by a select few - primarily men.  These traits were understood to be ‘God given’ or naturally acquired and would emerge at such points that leadership was required, for example during political turmoil. 

The mid-20th century, however, saw the emergence of behavioural theories of leadership which demonstrated a shift from understanding leadership as something one ‘is’ to something one ‘does’.  Research here focused on behaviours associated with leadership in different contexts and the desirability of such behaviours.  This work then led to the emergence of further theories of leadership, such as situational and transformational. Situational theories of leadership were concerned with the way in which leaders would adapt leadership style according to varying contexts and transformational theories focused on the way in which leaders influence followers.  Transformational theories of leadership explored leaders’ interactions with others within an organisation and analysed how leadership was co-constructed by various agents.  More recently, social constructive perspectives consider leadership as a product of collective meaning making, developed on an ongoing basis between leaders, managers and/or followers.  These perspectives create space for consideration of the wider cultural and social implications of leadership, for example around gender or ethnicity.

Good leadership is not ‘heroic’

The literature reviewed explicitly rejects the role of ‘heroic’ and ‘trait’ styles of leadership within public services as they are perceived to be ineffective in the context of the complex, adaptive problems facing society and a decentralised knowledge intensive space. The research argues that in this context, more collaborative styles of leadership are effective.

This rejection of ‘heroic’ leadership means there has been a shift towards understanding leadership as something that can be developed – that leaders are ‘made’ rather than ‘born’. That said, this research argues that some personal characteristics are important for ‘good’ leadership, such as integrity, diplomacy and the ability to handle conflict.  This reflects the arguments found within the wider (private sector focussed) literature on leadership.

Good leadership is transformative

Transformative leadership can be understood as a way by which leaders can change or influence the goals of others.  Here, there is a rejection of command and control forms of leadership, aiming for commitment (rather than simply compliance) from ‘followers’.  Good leadership is seen as inspiring people through driving values and vision, persuading others, listening to others and learning from them. A move away from ‘heroic’ leadership could be said to democratise the process of leadership, making it an aspect of organisational life that is accessible to those who are willing to develop, but how far transformative leadership symbolises this democratisation is questionable. The fundamental principal of changing followers’ attitudes and beliefs may still suggest an element of control on the part of a leader and the importance of character traits associated with having the ability to influence individuals, such as confidence.

Good leadership is strategic

There is a marked emphasis on leadership as strategic – the ability to plan ahead and enrol others in transforming the organisation.  Leadership is understood as essential to developing, implementing and managing strategic plans.   Leaders are important in setting the cultural ‘tone’ of an organisation and acting strategically to achieve a shared future vision.  Looking to the future is particularly challenging in circumstances whereby resources are scarce and demand continues to rise.  Critically, this understanding of good leadership demonstrates the need for public services to have a greater function than just to ‘survive’.  

This project notes the lack of research on ways of promoting the role of non-leaders within an organisation in developing strategy.  For example, this could developing strategy in a way that involves stakeholders, such as trade unions or staff groups, to make use of the knowledge and wisdom of ‘non-leaders’.

Leadership is important for driving reform

Leadership is imperative to public sector reform and is a key driver in enhancing organisational performance, establishing and promoting values and building relationships in order to drive change.  Leadership is important to managing strategic issues (developments or events that risk the achievement of key goals) in order to realise the organisation’s strategic goals.

The challenges, expectations and demands of public services are changing, thus leaders have a responsibility to ensure that public services can rise to each of these.  Leadership can be understood as a means by which stability is provided in a period of change.  The findings here echo arguments that flow through the wider literature, for example that leadership is imperative to driving organisations change and reform.

Challenging leadership theories

The textual analysis carried out within this research demonstrated that the role of leadership within public services remains unchallenged and there is no coverage of the limitations of leadership in the core texts reviewed. This is reflective of the wider literature, whereby leadership is accepted as a phenomenon and, though attempts are made to define and understand it, challenges to it remain scarce.  The most powerful challenges to leadership include that leadership serves to reinforce existing social beliefs and structures about the necessity of hierarchy, and that leadership enables the maintenance of the status quo.

A core criticism of traditional and contemporary leadership theory is that it is underpinned by the assumption that leadership is a while, male construct.  Black and minority ethnic people and women remain underrepresented in the top 5,000 leadership roles across the public and voluntary sectors and little attention is paid to understanding why this may be the case. The exclusion of any discussion around gender or ethnicity in any one of the texts dismisses the reality of leadership as exclusionary and removes any potential for the consideration into how various social factors impact on leadership.


This research has argued that understanding ‘good’ leadership within public services is increasingly important in an age of public service reform. It has outlined a distinct effort within the literature to distance ideas of ‘good’ leadership within public services from ‘heroic’ ideas of leadership and to align ‘good’ leadership with transformative ideologies of leadership. It has also demonstrated that leadership is a key driver of good public service organisation.

Furthermore, this research has highlighted that this role of leadership within public services has not been challenged, nor has there been consideration into the potential problems associated with leadership. This research has argued that the way in which leadership is constructed within the literature has real life implications for the reality of leadership within public service organisations, arguing that further research into leadership would benefit from being both follower-centric and providing more critique of the ‘leader’ role.

About the project

This research was a Master’s dissertation as part of the MSc in Public Management and Leadership, completed by Gemma Carmichael and supervised by Professor Vivien Lowndes. Gemma can be contacted at