An introduction to public leadership
An introduction to public leadership

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An introduction to public leadership

1.2.3 Leadership in Practice

Early research on leadership focused particularly on individuals – what made them stand out as leaders in terms of their personalities, or how they were able to be charismatic and influential through particular styles or types of behaviours. It has been called the ‘heroic’ approach to leadership.

There is a place for heroic leadership. A prime minister or president can often make a difference. A ‘gold commander’ may be essential in trying to restore public order in a riot. But if we only think of leadership as heroic, we may miss the important everyday leadership that goes on at all levels both inside and outside organisations. This calls for the three forms of leadership, based on personal qualities, organisational position and social process – to be developed across public service organisations and utilised by practitioners according to the demands of the situation.

In this video, Chief Constable (CC) Francis Habgood of Thames Valley Police discusses the role and the personal qualities of a leader within policing, the nature of leadership in a hierarchical organisation such as the police, and leaders working through fostering relationships.

Download this video clip.Video player: ou_futurelearn_police_vid_1037.mp4
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It is a mix between leadership as a position, a person, and a process. And let me just explain a little bit about each of those and the circumstances when we might use each of them.
The obvious point to make is that policing is a rank-based, hierarchical organisation. We have insignia that denote the rank that we hold in the organisation. And even if I encourage people that they can call me by my first name, there are certain people who will always want to call me Sir. That is part of, I think, this sort of organisation. So there will inevitably be an assigned leadership role based on that position. And the power will go with that position as well.
The second area in terms of as a person, in policing there are many occasions where you will have a number of equals. So on a shift of police officers, quite often naturally there will be somebody who will emerge as the person who takes control of that particular incident and then deals with that and directs people. And they don't do that because of their position, they do that because they are the person that they are and they emerge as the leader in those particular circumstances.
And that can change. That can change depending on the situation that you're in and the skills that you might have and people recognise that. And the whole thing about policing as a team, I think, is that you bring together a group of individuals who have different skills, and knowledge, and qualities. And I think that's a real strength. What we're not looking for is a group of people who are all exactly the same, clones. So in those circumstances, it's absolutely down to the person rather than the position.
In terms of process, an example of that would be where we increasingly are working in partnership with others. And so there's no formal hierarchy between policing or health. If we might be working with health, or with local authority, or the fire service. So I think it can be all of those three areas; process, position and person, under different circumstances. And in one particular day I could have gone through all three.
I am the chief constable, nobody escapes that. But actually when I walk into a room full of chief fire officers, as I've done fairly recently, I don't have a position of power over them. So it's either going to be process or it'll be about the person.
Again, I remember when I first joined there was a default to push decisions up. And this was before many computers, so you would have a piece of paper that would be signed by a police constable. And then the sergeant would add a comment, an inspector would add a comment, and it would go up and then it would come back with the comments. And looking for a decision now, actually it's who's the most appropriate person to make the decision and actually what's the most appropriate way to make that decision?
Sometimes it's through a much more democratic, collaborative approach. And sometimes it's, let's set what the parameters are and you go away and problem solve. Because I want all of the people who work for me in policing to be problem solvers. I don't want them to look up to their leaders for them to make all the decisions. Accountability has shifted quite considerably and I think everybody across the organisation is much more exposed to public accountability. It's not just me as the ultimate leader in an organisation, everybody is exposed to that public accountability. And that's right actually, because, if you think, you as a citizen can't choose who you get your policing from.
End transcript
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Activity 3

Is there anything that still puzzles you about the personal qualities needed for leadership, the relationship between leadership and formal positions of authority, or the process by which people exercise leadership through interaction with others? What more do you want to find out about these aspects of leadership?

And what are your own aspirations in these three aspects of leadership? What kind of personal qualities do you want to be known for? What kind of position do you want to be in? And how do you want to work with others to provide leadership?

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In the following short quiz, you can test your understanding of what you have studied so far about leadership and its practice in the public sphere.

Activity 4

A distinctive feature of public leadership is for leaders always to...?


act in the public interest


manage their public image


practise public speaking

The correct answer is a.


While many commentators on leadership may recommend the development of public-speaking skills and the cultivation of a positive public image for themselves and their organisation, the expectation of always acting in the public interest distinguishes public leaders from those in other economic and social spheres.

Which of the following is not considered a perspective on leadership amongst researchers?


social services


organisational position


personal qualities

The correct answer is a.


Researchers recognise the importance of organisational position within a hierarchy of management roles, and of personal qualities such as the ability to communicate and empathise with others, as valid perspectives on understanding leadership. The third perspective identified is social process, which relates to the ways in which leaders lead – for example, through coaching, facilitating or commending. ‘Social services’ is simply a common name for a branch of public service responsible for delivering aspects of social care and welfare provision.


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