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An introduction to public leadership
An introduction to public leadership

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1.2.1 A brief tour of leadership theories

A woman, her back to the viewer, writing graffiti on an industrial wall. The graffiti is a light bulb shape filled with words describing leadership concepts. In the centre, in large yellow letters, is the word 'Leadership'.
Figure 3

The extract below, from the book Leadership for Healthcare (Hartley and Benington, 2010), introduces some different definitions of leadership.

In understanding leadership, an early definition from the 1950s is still helpful:

‘Leadership may be considered as the process (act) of influencing the activities of an organised group in its efforts towards goal setting and goal achievement.’ (Stogdill, 1950, p. 3)

This has a number of elements – it views leadership as a social and relational process of influence occurring within a group. So, leadership is seen here not just in terms of individual characteristics but about what happens between leaders and those being influenced. Stogdill’s definition is about an organised group, although there may be arguments that leadership can have wider impacts, for example, outside as well as inside the organisation. The definition also links leadership to purposes – goal setting and/or goal achievement. This suggests that the work that the group aims to do together is central to the definition. This definition is focused not on a person but on a process (influence).

Other definitions emphasise these features, to a greater or lesser degree. For example:

  • ‘leadership over human beings is exercised when persons with certain motives and purposes mobilise, in competition or conflict with others, institutional, political, psychological, and other resources so as to arouse, engage and satisfy the motives of followers’ (Burns, 1978, p. 18);
  • ‘leadership is realised in the process whereby one or more individuals succeed in attempting to frame and define the reality of others’ (Smircich and Morgan, 1982, p. 258); …
  • ‘mobilising people to tackle tough problems’ (Heifetz, 1994, p. 15).

These definitions are drawn from a range of fields where leadership has been observed (managerial, organisational, political) and are seen as generically relevant.

In the health field, Goodwin argues for a definition of leadership based on a systems-wide view:

‘Leadership is a dynamic process of pursuing a vision for change in which the leader is supported by two main groups: followers within the leader’s own organisation, and influential players and other organisations in the leader’s wider, external environment.’ (Goodwin, 2006, p. 22)

These definitions vary substantially – whether the definition focuses on the purposes or goals, or whether it focuses on the social dynamics; whether the focus is the group, the organisation or the social system; whether the intention is to satisfy followers or to engage them in difficult problem-solving (tough problems). They do have in common the idea of influence between human beings, with particular purposes to be achieved.

(Hartley and Benington, 2010, pp. 14–15)

Since writing the book, Professor Hartley has reflected further on how leadership can be defined and conceptualised, in part through her experience of being one of the authors of the Berwick Report which made recommendations to government in 2013 about enhancing patient safety in the NHS. This was in the wake of the Francis Report into errors and neglect at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Hospital Trust.

The authors of the Berwick Report needed to think about leadership as it was exercised on the front-line, by those in middle leadership positions, those in strategic roles, right up to the Prime Minister. They made recommendations at each level, and defined leadership as ‘mobilising the attention, resources and practices of others towards particular goals, values or outcomes’. So leadership is not just about goals; it can be about values, purposes and priorities, and it is about mobilisation, which arguably is stronger than influence.