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Human Relations

DOI: 10.1177/0018726706065371
Volume 59(4): 483504
Copyright 2006
The Tavistock Institute
SAGE Publications
London, Thousand Oaks CA,
New Delhi

A model of political leadership

Kevin Morrell and Jean Hartley


In this article we develop a model of political leadership. In doing so,

we analyse the challenges facing political leaders in local government
in England and Wales. We use this analysis as a basis for broader theorizing: about leadership at other levels of government, and in other
countries. The scope for applying extant accounts of leadership in
these domains can be enhanced by considering the relational
complexities that characterize the environment within which political
leaders act; by doing so we offer an agenda for research. We describe
the context for political leaders in terms of figurational sociology,
where figurations denote interdependent networks of social relations.
These take shape in different arenas of action, and are partly influenced by the different roles that political leaders undertake. These
figurations are also constituted differently given the diversity inherent
in the context for enacting political leadership. We propose a conceptual model that serves both as a heuristic framework to organize
conceptualization of this understudied area, and to orient future


figuration  government  leadership  model  political

Although there is a large literature on leadership, much of this is acontextual, framed in terms of the individual, and atomistic. In Fairhursts terms
(2001: 383), the dominant views of leadership have been shaped by a
traditional psychological view of the world where, in a figure-ground


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arrangement, the individual is figure, the system is background. This dualism

precludes systemic perspectives (Senge, 1990), and accounts that acknowledge the interplay between structural and agentic explanations of social
phenomena (Giddens, 1984). As well as potentially oversimplifying associated phenomena, such as charisma, or effectiveness, the traditional psychological view privileges research from nomothetic paradigms, at the expense
of interpretivist perspectives such as ethnography and social constructionism. This can bias research towards causal and functionalist accounts, at the
expense of more detailed exploration of meaning, and intentionality
(Ghoshal, 2005). It is important to address these limitations, since the way
in which social phenomena are labelled and explained influences them
through the Pygmalion effect (Ferraro et al., 2005). Here we offer an account
to complement rather than usurp established accounts of leadership. Our
approach has broad implications although the aim is to develop research in
an understudied area, by focusing on political leaders: those who hold formal
political authority, acquired through election in a democratic society.
In the organizational behaviour literature, empirical research has operationalized political skill as a discrete subset of behaviours that can enhance
effectiveness, or explain career success (Moss, 2005). Political power has
been used narrowly to refer to the ways in which decisions are controlled,
and resources are deployed and distributed in organizations (Yukl, 1989). In
everyday discourse, politics is both a signifier and explanation for a range
of unfavourable workplace outcomes; politicking describes occasionally
unsavoury activities such as lobbying or dirty tricks. In both senses, these
pejorative connotations of politics can colour perceptions, and muddy
analysis of political leadership. We argue here that political leadership is a
substantive area of activity that is understudied in the contemporary leadership literature, and as such it warrants attention.

Political leadership
Here we define political leaders as: i) democratically elected ii) representatives
who iii) are vulnerable to deselection, and iv) operate within, as well as influence a constitutional and legal framework. Their source of authority is v) a
mandate: permission to govern according to declared policies, regarded as
officially granted by an electorate . . . upon the decisive outcome of an
election (Chambers dictionary, 1993). Membership of the electorate is vi) set
out in law, and broader than organizational or union forms of membership,
since it extends to all citizens with voting rights, in a defined constituency.
This summarizes the basis for political leaders claims to authority. It
illustrates how they differ from other leaders such as: chief executives,

Morrell & Hartley A model of political leadership

managers from the private, public and voluntary sectors and those in the
military. The definition is brief and contains a number of terms that could
warrant further discussion, or are understood relationally (electorate, citizen,
constituency) but we propose the above criteria as necessary conditions that
are broad enough to include many different types of political leaders. It
covers what we call formal political leaders, though not informal political leaders, such as those who head special interest groups, or civil rights
activists, or trade unionists (Azzam & Riggio, 2003). Nor does it cover
despots (Kets de Vries, 2005).
Since political leaders are elected rather than appointed, and act as
representatives, they require consent from those whom they govern and
serve. They have a duty to serve all their constituents and protect the interests of future generations, rather than simply those who supported them.
This should include the elderly and disadvantaged groups, as well as those
who do not have the power to vote, such as children. These are typical differences in comparison with non-political leaders, but political leaders also
operate under different structures of accountability and scrutiny. In addition,
they have formal legal responsibility for a broad range of issues: health, law
enforcement, taxation, education, legislation and the economic sphere. The
networks within which they act have regularities but are also fluid. Political
leaders gain authority through the ballot box initially but their authority is
potentially subject to challenge on a daily basis, from: their political party
(most operate within a party structure), opposition politicians, the media,
their constituents, and other bodies (e.g. charities, lobby groups, business
One characteristic of the challenges facing political leaders is that
actions and decisions may require the mobilization of different groups in
order to build consent. In this sense, the issue for politicians is to gain some
consensus across the entire domain of a problem (Thompson, 1967). A
further source of complexity is that political leaders are directly responsible
for the provision of public services (e.g. street lighting), and also have a regulatory and enforcement role (e.g. in collecting taxes). The ubiquitous
language of customer relations breaks down here since many customers of
regulatory services are unwilling ones (Pollitt, 2003). Peoples expectations
of what leaders can provide may differ widely from what is actually possible
given legal, logistical and practical constraints (Boin & Hart, 2003). These
different challenges show how the relationship between leaders, stakeholder
groups and the electorate is complex and interdependent.
There are some areas of overlap and similarity here with non-political
leaders, such as senior chief executives (CEs), and leaders in public
administration (Cook, 1998). CEs may feel they, and their organization, have
a moral duty to their stakeholders, a term that can be interpreted broadly



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(Kelly et al., 2000). Accordingly, they may believe they should act in the
interests of all stakeholders, even those who are opposed to their appointment
and strategies. Governance structures within an organization may be democratic in the sense that those in authority are accountable to their superiors,
who are in turn accountable to collective, representative bodies (Ackoff,
1994). These arrangements could be extended to include other stakeholders,
bringing the model of a democratic corporation closer to the literal sense of
democracy, rule by the people (Skelcher & Mathur, 2004). CEs may seek to
influence policy, to mobilize coalitions and consolidate support, for instance
prior to a shareholders meeting. Writers such as Charles Handy have argued
that the boundaries between public and private sector organizations are
blurring, an issue that has been explored in greater depth with reference to
the public sector generally (Robbins, 1993), and local government in particular (Benington, 2000). Hartley (2000) argues that politically led organizations
can provide useful insights into generic processes in organizational behaviour.
Similarly, Brunsson (1985: 116) suggests political organizations, expose
fundamental problems connected with rationality and action and can teach
us a great deal about fundamental problems and solutions in organizations.
Despite areas of overlap and similarity, we submit that the definition
above describes a particular kind of activity, one broad enough to reference
a large number of leaders for whom leadership is sufficiently coherent and
distinctive as to be considered a phenomenon in its own right. The definition
orients research away from an exclusive focus on behaviours because it
considers the formal basis for authority, and the context within which leadership is enacted. We do not question that the same behaviours may manifest
themselves in political and non-political leaders, however, given the particular structures within which political leaders operate, attention to context is
also important (Hoggett, 2006; Leach et al., 2005). Though leaders from
other sectors face complex challenges, they do not have a similar mandate,
and this is not addressed in the contemporary literature. Here we address this
gap by offering a model for political leadership that is sensitive to structural
constraints, embedded in the context, and constituted in social interaction
(Collinson, 2005). Prior to exploring the suitability of existing theories of
leadership, we outline the particular contextual complexities facing political

Political leadership in situ

In this section, we propose and discuss a summative framework for political
leadership. This is developed from consideration of a particular context: local
government in the UK. To maintain clarity, subsequent exposition draws on






KSAs valuesb

Key decision-makers,
heart of political body

Delegation, information
processing, persuading,
influencing,Gets things

Investigate broad
policy, challenge and
examine decisions,

Weighing and
applications and
appeals; direct
regulation (discretion)

Responsibility of all
politicians to their

Meeting skills, research,

Critical questioning

research, judgement
Analytical skills, care,

Listening, advising,
facilitating, research
Interested in people,
service ethos



Ranged profile of leader behaviours

(population profile, social change)

Scale of change, social diversity

No special requirements Sensitivity, cultural

awareness, ability to engage diverse groups


Level of social cohesion

Foster community initiatives Encourage wider

levels of participation

(level of wealth, employment)

Levels of wealth, educational

attainment, employment

Engage poorer parts of community, lobby for

funding Foster growth, satisfy electorate

(local, regional/national agenda)

Relations with other layers of


Consolidate, build on regional/national identity

Negotiate greater regional/national autonomy

(providing > influencing role)

Extent of partnership

Providing services, fostering partnerships

Fiduciary competence, collaborative skills

Control or opposition
(political stability, influence, culture)


Leading/influencing & persuading Role model

for change/facilitative empowering, persuading

Political allegiance
(to party, to government)

Ties and lo yalty to party or other

political bodies

Relative independence from party Close ties

(accountability, open government)

Levels of representativeness and


Build on democratic legitimacy Increase

visibility and links with voters

(reform agenda and mandate)

Perceived effectiveness at
innovation and improvement

Consolidate strengths Implement reforms to

enhance improvement


Degree to which technology is

integrated, used and understood

Enable and promote learning and access Drive

forward innovative technologies

(population, size of council)

Population served, number of

officers, civil servants

Managing bureaucracy, centralization

Leveraging limited resources

Information on roles, responsibilities, profile and context is drawn from Stewart (2003), roles found at local, regional, national and international level.
KSAs = Knowledge, skills, attitudes.

Figure 1 Dimensions of contextual diversity for political leaders

Morrell & Hartley A model of political leadership





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this context, though as we argue, this summary is potentially applicable to

all forms of political leadership as earlier defined (see Figure 1). The
framework represents the inherent contextual diversities faced by political
leaders. It illustrates these across several domains, which influence how
leadership is constructed and enacted.
Column 1 shows four generic roles which political leaders undertake:
executive, scrutiny, regulatory and advocacy (Stewart, 2003). These are
formal descriptions of leadership roles for local politicians in England and
Wales, but can reference activities common to political leaders in other
contexts, at other levels of government, and in other countries. For each,
there is a range of responsibilities, some of which may be part of the role,
while others may be self-chosen (column 2). From the responsibilities can be
derived a role profile, where a range of knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSAs)
are desirable (column 3). Importantly too, political leaders should share some
of the values that pertain to living in a democratic society, for example,
accepting diversity, and seeking to take into account the interests of all
constituents not just those who share ones political allegiances. They should
also be people of integrity and probity since they are responsible for administering public monies and making decisions that have an impact on
economic and social well-being.
Alongside these generic profiles, we list several dimensions of the
context for their leadership, the contextual filter (as bracketed). These will
vary from place to place, and differences will influence their constituents,
and leader, priorities. Column 4, diversity, lists each dimension. Column 5,
index, operationalizes the ways in which these may differ. We suggest each
dimension can be operationalized with ordinal or scalar measures. Column
6 briefly hypothesizes different behaviours that are likely to prove more or
less effective in the light of the particular context. This account does not
imply a mapping of the context for each political leader; instead, it illustrates
dimensions along which the context is in flux. This offers greater scope than
models that are static or exclusively focused on content, or that fail to
acknowledge the importance of structural elements.
To develop Figure 1, below we describe different contextual features
that shape the domains within and across whose boundaries politicians
operate. To provide clarity and sufficient detail, this is illustrated using the
policy and academic literatures dealing with local government (Hartley &
Benington, 1998; Wilson & Leach, 2002). This preserves a consistent level
of analysis in the sections that offer in-depth description of contextual
complexity. However, we contend that the logic informing this account of
political leadership, applies at regional, national and supranational levels,
and that Figure 1 stands as a visual summary that is transferable to these

Morrell & Hartley A model of political leadership

contexts. Our account describes three arenas of diversity, respectively: the

place, whether local, regional or national; the authorizing environment
(Moore, 1995), and the organizational environment, for example, the local
authority, a regional assembly, or national and supranational parliaments.
Within each category are a number of sub-categories that influence the
diversity of the leadership task.

The place
Some local governments in the United Kingdom (UK) have a relatively stable
population where the pace of demographic change is low, for example,
certain rural settings with limited inward migration. Other councils face challenges of coping with, for example, national growth plans, economic
migrants or asylum seekers. Changes may put pressure on the provision of
local public services and the political choices this requires. Political leaders
may have to be able to represent and articulate the views of a diverse population. The level of social cohesion also varies immensely. In some areas,
where there is a strong sense of community, political leaders may act in a
facilitative role, consolidating existing networks; in other areas there will be
a challenge to reach out and create a sense of community. The political
leadership roles and challenges are likely to be different in these different
circumstances (Leach et al., 2005). Finally, the economy affects challenges
for political leaders. For example, with high unemployment and social
deprivation there may be associated problems of low educational attainment
and crime (Lupton, 2003) and a key role for political leaders may be to
attract extra resources. Deprivation may also have a depressive impact on
aspirations. In areas where there is high employment and prosperity, the local
community may create greater demand for more complex service provision.

The authorizing environment

In the UK, local government is highly dependent on central government for
legislative and financial freedom. This contrasts with the USA, for example,
where authority essentially derives from local government upwards to state
and federal bodies. In the UK, there is variation between councils in the
degree to which they have achieved some (limited) degree of autonomy from
central government. Shifts in emphasis in the role of local government from
service provider to collaborative partner in service provision have been
pronounced in the last decade (Leach & Wilson, 2002). Some authorities are
well practiced in developing suitable partnerships to enact these changes
(Geddes & Benington, 2001). In others, political leaders are building these



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relationships from scratch, which requires a different set of skills and

leadership processes. The distribution of power within a local authority may
influence the repertoire of behaviours politicians can deploy. For example a
minority group opposition faces different challenges to a majority party
administration. This may affect the relative emphasis leaders place on core
skills, for example, influencing, facilitating, and persuading. Allegiance
differs across councils according to how integrated the controlling group is
with their political partys national structure (Leach & Wilson, 2002). This
can influence the degree of freedom with which a political leader can operate.
Finally, different factors affect the legitimacy of leadership. First, electoral
turnout varies across councils and can adversely affect the legitimacy with
which politicians govern (Rallings et al., 1996). Second, where councillors are
unrepresentative (in terms of demographic characteristics) this may reduce
perceptions of legitimacy (Employers Organization & I&DeA, 2001). Third,
political leaders act in different roles: enforcing and influencing regulation,
being advocates, and having responsibility for service provision. This can
make it difficult to articulate the relationship between leaders and the
communities they govern (Ranson & Stewart, 1994). There may be diverse
interpretations of local politicians accountability (Pollitt, 2003). Each facet
of legitimacy illustrates how leadership is socially constituted.

The organizational environment

The challenge of responding to pressures for reforms is met differently across
different politically led organizations, and performance across these also
varies. Authorities are likely to be in a position of consolidating on existing
strengths, or working hard to reform. Irrespective of the legitimacy of
performance ratings (Boyne & Enticott, 2004), these influence stakeholder
perceptions and affect the priority political leaders give to internal organizational improvement (Leach et al., 2005). Local authorities also vary in their
ability to deploy technologies. These can enhance local democracy and
improve the ability of authorities to link with other agencies (Martin, 1997).
Though identified as an explanatory variable for a range of phenomena
(Child, 1984; Pugh, 1981), few studies explicitly consider the relationship
between organizational size and leadership. However, there is reason to
expect that the size of a local authority and its population are likely to influence the behaviours of political leaders (Boyne, 2003). For example, the
largest local authority in England serves over a million people, with more
than 100 elected politicians. Smaller local authorities may serve a population
of under 30,000, with fewer than 20 politicians. This variety has implications
for the structure of the organization, but also for governance arrangements,

Morrell & Hartley A model of political leadership

and the management of the authority. Having discussed the particular

characteristics of, and contexts for, political leadership, the following section
briefly reviews the current leadership literature to assess its suitability for
studying this phenomenon.

The literature on leadership

Grints The arts of leadership (2000: 23) discusses four kinds of leadership
theory: trait approaches, contingency approaches, situational approaches
and constitutive approaches. He categorizes these according to whether they
emphasize the individual or the context as essential. Trait approaches are
essentialist in terms of the leader but non-essentialist in terms of context:
a leader is a leader under any circumstances. Contingency approaches are
essentialist in terms of the leader and the context: both the essence of the
individual and the context are knowable and critical. Situational approaches
are essentialist in terms of the context, but not in terms of the leader: certain
contexts demand certain kinds of leadership so we do need to be very clear
about where we are. The fourth kind, constitutive approaches, are nonessentialist in terms of the leader and the context: the meaning of context
and leader are both contested, leadership must still be perceived as appropriate, but what that means is an interpretive issue. We use this framework
to examine briefly the academic literature on leadership, with a view to
assessing its suitability for understanding political leadership.

Trait approaches
Much leadership research views leaders as individuals with a particular set
of traits or abilities, or sees leadership as the exercise of particularly effective sets of behaviours. Leadership dimensions have been developed for
example for health service managers (Alimo-Metcalfe & Alban-Metcalfe,
2001) and trait-based approaches have informed the study of union leaders
(Metochi, 2002). Similarly, recent theories hypothesize linkages between type
of leader and a dependent variable(s). For example, transformational leadership traits have been linked with: knowledge creation, organizational
performance, follower self-concordance, work alienation, creativity, and
higher order motives (see Vera & Crossan, 2004 for a review). Other studies
examine charismatic (Javidan & Waldman, 2003) and transcendental leadership (Sanders et al., 2003) in a similar fashion. This approach exhibits
paradigmatic consensus (Pfeffer, 1993); that is, given terms (transformational
and transactional leadership) are commonly understood, and there is a



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methodological consensus using inventories to assess the type of leadership, and a range of measures to assess the dependent variables (Barker,
2001). One advantage of having paradigmatic consensus is that there is less
debate over first assumptions. However, this can be a limitation if it leads to
the monolithic representation of phenomena, or leaves little room for
diversity in approaches (Zald, 1997). One reason that trait accounts are
limited is that they underplay the importance of leaders interdependence.
For political leaders, effectiveness and identity is not merely a function of
character, but socially constituted in a rich, dynamic context, and subject to
structural constraints and opportunities.

Contingency approaches
The most influential contingency model is by Fiedler (1967), which emphasizes leadership style in combination with the relevant features of a given
situation. This suggests that performance is a function of leaders style and
some key features of the context (leaderfollower relations, task structure,
position power). A contemporary example offered by Liu et al. (2003: 127)
suggests leadership styles should be matched to the modes of working of
employees, as determined by the objectives and psychological obligations
underlying different groups of employees. Other contingency approaches
consider top management teams (upper echelons theory), or shared leadership, where the characteristics of an elite group are viewed as appropriate
to a particular context (Ensley et al., 2003; Papadakis & Barwise, 2002).
Contingency approaches have an advantage over trait accounts in that they
acknowledge the role of context. However, they also imply a mechanistic
relationship between style and context, as suggested by notions of
matching and fit. This is an instance of a dualist framing of leadership,
between the individual and the system (Fairhurst, 2001). The difficulty of
applying this to politicians is that the context is constantly changing and
can be different depending on the nature of particular challenges, or the
different actors with whom they interact. Political leaders networks are not
static, as is implied by the idea of a prevailing mode of working, instead
they are highly fluid. Changes in these, or the wider context, influence the
contingencies of leadership.

Situational approaches
There are two prominent theories of situational leadership. Vroom and
Yetton (1973) identify five leader decision-making styles, and Hersey and
Blanchard (1988) suggest leaders adapt styles to suit the readiness of their

Morrell & Hartley A model of political leadership

followers to perform. In both models, the context determines which style is

appropriate. Situational approaches, like contingency approaches, acknowledge the importance of context and thus offer advantages over trait accounts.
However, they overlook the ways in which leader and context may be interdependent. This is a limitation because political leaders are concerned with
developing far-reaching policies that govern the authorizing environment
(Moore, 1995) within which organizations and institutions operate. This
makes it harder to treat context for political leaders as a given (Leach et
al., 2005). Managerial leaders typically promote the interests of an organization, or less typically, a coalition of organizations with shared interests.
Though managerial leaders have a moral duty to consider what may be
loosely called stakeholders, political leaders bear the social expectation that
they will consider the impacts of their decisions on every group in their
constituency, and sometimes beyond. These groups may have competing
values and goals, so the challenge is to address difficult problems where there
is conflict as to what the criteria informing decisions should be, and less
consensus about desired outcomes (Burns, 1978; Heifetz, 1994). There is also
likely to be disagreement over how outcomes are measured (Behn, 2003).
This in turn implies interdependence between leaders and other actors in a
network, which an exclusive focus on trait, situational or contingency
approaches does not provide.

Constitutive approaches
The constitutive approach contests the objectivity of the terms leader and
context, emphasizing the role of interpretation and the way in which these
terms are interrelated (Denis et al., 2001). Though there is less literature on
this approach, the logic underlying it can partly be seen in leader member
exchange (LMX) theory (Dansereau et al., 1975). This holds that leaders use
different leadership styles with different groups of subordinates (Sparrow &
Liden, 1997), and where assignment to a favoured in-group results in
favourable, informal exchanges between leaders and members, whereas outgroup interactions are more task-oriented and formal. Following these
analyses, the leader and the context (in terms of work group) are defined
relationally (Leach et al., 2005). One of the potential benefits of a constitutive approach is that it allows space to explore the ways in which leadership
is socially constructed (Grint, 2000, 2005; Heifetz, 1994). This opens opportunities for alternative methodological paradigms, such as ethnography, and
methods such as discourse or narrative analyses (Putnam & Fairhurst, 2001).
A limitation is that exclusive focus on constitutive accounts makes it harder
to pursue prevailing nomothetic paradigms based on quantitative methods.



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Developing the study of political leadership

The brief review above suggests there are shortcomings in each approach
identified by Grints study of contemporary leadership research. Though we
accept these may adversely affect the study of other forms of leadership, there
is good reason to address these shortcomings as they concern study of political leadership in particular. Political leadership is a relatively understudied,
though discrete and substantive area of interest and in this sense there is more
scope to influence future research than in areas where there is a well-established body of literature (McKinley et al., 1999). In addition, for theoretical
reasons, it is interesting to explore a phenomenon where: i) structural similarities (as outlined in the earlier definition) persist across different levels, and
different geographical areas; and ii) a large number of actors operate in
circumstances and settings that are respectively very different (Figure 1); and
with iii) different levels of effectiveness.
Since political leadership involves relationships of interdependence
between leaders, the organization(s) and the context, separately defining
leader and context can be limiting. This suggests that trait, contingency
and situational approaches may be usefully complemented by a constitutive
approach. For example, certain truths about political leadership and leader
effectiveness are constructed by the media, by opposition parties, by political colleagues and by constituents and activists (Grint, 2000). The interpretation of particular events such as crises may be inseparable from
considerations of leadership (Boin & Hart, 2003). Political leaders also
operate across interorganizational domains (Hartley, 2002). Though this is
true for (senior) managerial leaders, the influence of political leaders is more
fundamental since they govern the institutional and regulatory context for
activity (Moore, 1995). Their activity is also multi-nodal in that they must
consider the impact of change on different constituencies (Heifetz, 1994).
In illustrating the limitations of an exclusive focus on any of the prevalent approaches to studying leadership, we have emphasized how understanding of the individual and understanding of the context are relationally
configured, thereby rejecting the dualism implied by casting the individual
and the context as separate (Fairhurst, 2001). Different epistemological
approaches address the interrelation between individual actions and social
structures in diverse ways. Rather than dwell on each at length, introducing
and outlining some of these briefly is sufficient to position our argument and
epistemology. Systems theory (Senge, 1990; Shaw, 2002) emphasizes interconnectedness, causal complexity and the relation of parts to the whole
(Ackoff, 1994). By challenging the notion that social systems can be understood in terms of component parts, it frustrates simple causal explanations

Morrell & Hartley A model of political leadership

of behaviour or outcomes, and underlines the difficulty of predicting the

effects of interventions in social practices. Structuration theory was
developed to address the problem of how to explain the relationship between
individual actions and social structures (Giddens, 1984). One mechanism for
doing this is to describe how shared schema (scripts) mediate relations
between individual actions and social structures, and influence both recursively. Actor network theory (Latour, 1996), and other approaches to
analysing language, such as (D)discourse theory (Honan et al., 2000) or
critical discourse analysis (Potter & Wetherell, 1987), interpret social practices by analysing the way in which texts are presented, and deployed as
resources. The privileging of some modes of discourse, and identification of
antinomies can indicate hegemonies or ideologies that pattern relations and
activities, as well as influence the uses and distribution of power in social
groups (Foucault, 2002; Putnam & Fairhurst, 2001). A host of other
approaches fall under the broad banner of network analysis, including collective action theory, public goods theory, transaction cost economics theory
and social capital theory (see Monge & Contractor, 2001 for a review).
Though varied, what these share is a concern with relationships and interactions among a given set of actors, and a focus on social processes as well
as attributes (Katz & Kahn, 1978).
In our model, we use Eliass term figuration, which refers to a network
of interdependent actors, and the actors themselves (Dopson, 1997; Elias,
1978). Figuration provides a useful, shorthand way of talking about relationally complex domains such as those that characterize the different arenas
of politics. More broadly, figurational sociology offers a useful way of interpreting such relational complexity (Newton, 2002). In comparison with the
perspectives sketched above, figurational sociology has some advantages that
suggest it can be a useful counterpoint to the individualsystem dualism in
leadership research.
First, figurational sociology is primarily focused on people and their
interrelationships. As Figure 1 suggests, there are many ways in which
leaders interactions may be influenced by the context but an important
feature of political leadership is the diversity of people with whom they
interact in a formal capacity, for example: members from the same party at
various levels; other political leaders; representatives of unions, lobby groups
and communities of interest; business leaders; and individual voters. In each
case, interactions are part of a wider constellation of interrelationships, and
recursively influence the context for other interactions. This is a more subtle
rendering of interaction than economic approaches (e.g. public goods theory,
transaction cost economics), which are expressed in terms of relationships of
exchange (Poppo & Zenger, 2002).



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Second, figurational sociology, or process sociology, is concerned with

change, or flux (Gouldsblom, 1977 in Dopson, 1997). Systems thinking
and some forms of network analysis are often employed in a diagnostic
fashion, used in response to implementing a particular change, to shape
future strategy, to model a complex process, or as a problem-finding tool
(Weisbord & Jaroff, 1995). Similarly, whereas some types of linguistic
analysis, such as critical discourse analysis, are acutely sensitive to the particularities of a given context, other more established traditions within
sociology, such as sociolinguistics, may treat social structures as given, rather
than as being in the act of created (Putnam & Fairhurst, 2001).
A third, related advantage is that figurational sociology builds the
notion of power into analyses of social networks (Newton, 2002). In any
network where actors are not wholly controlled, interdependencies and
differential power relations produce a complex interweaving of interests and
agendas. One implication of this is that search for single causes is futile,
which suggests common ground with systems approaches (Senge, 1990).
However, a process approach places more emphasis on how such relationships are in a state of flux, or becoming. The stress on differential power
relations, or power chances, is relevant to understanding political leadership, because in democracies, political leaders authority is constantly under
scrutiny and they are accountable to different constituencies. Political leaders
have to build groups and coalitions to address complex problems (Heifetz,
1994). Also, their authority is dependent on consent, and open to challenge
from many quarters.

A model of political leadership

In light of this discussion, we propose the following (see Figure 2) as a model
of political leadership. In doing so, we respond to the call for more theorizing in public sector research (Ferlie et al., 2003; Martin, 1997).
By incorporating the contextual filter developed in Figure 1 this
captures some sense of the complexities of political leadership. Additionally,
it illustrates that leadership is not the province of an individual, but something that is relationally enacted, as represented by the bidirectional arrows.
Equally, it incorporates each of the four roles that political leaders variously
carry out. The first section (roles, responsibilities and KSAs values) follows
from the institutional and legal framework. Though we have used terms from
local political leadership in the UK, we suggest these may be common to
political leaders in other contexts. The second section (contextual filter)
signals contextual contingencies relevant to political leaders, as per Figure 1.

Morrell & Hartley A model of political leadership

Executive Scrutiny Regulatory Advocacy






Figure 2

A model of political leadership

Notes (by section as numbered):

1. This is taken as axiomatic and following from the policy literature.
2. Contingent, as described in more detail in Figure 1.
3. Leadership is socially constituted and relationally constructed in various figurations.

The third section (leadership) shows how leadership may be differently

constructed within the different figurations (F1, F2 . . . Fn) in which leaders
act. The fourth section (performance) is an outcome measure that shows
how leaders actions, and the consequences of those actions, subsequently



Human Relations 59(4)

influence future figurations and the contextual filter. Performance could be

operationalized in various ways. We have insufficient space to develop this
in detail, and measuring public sector outcomes is complex and contested
(Morrell, 2006) but empirical measures could include electoral turnout,
measures of employment, inflation or mortality.

Research agenda
As well as serving a heuristic purpose, Figure 2 can be used to frame a
research agenda that illustrates how contemporary accounts of leadership
can be applied in this setting. This capitalizes on the attraction of both visual
and propositional forms of theory (Worren et al., 2002). To illustrate this we
can usefully refer back to Grints framework of leadership theories. Though
we have pointed out the limitations of an exclusive focus on any one of these,
the model above can be used to develop a research agenda that usefully
complements each approach in the following ways.
First, in terms of the different roles leaders undertake, there are differences in the types of generic behaviours that these roles require (Stewart,
2003). For example, scrutinizing proposed policy requires a facility for
asking the appropriate questions, and an ability to imagine the effects of
policy post implementation. Acting as a representative (a function of all
political leaders) requires empathy, a willingness and ability to listen, and a
service ethic. Acknowledging the difference between these two roles could
engender a more refined account of what transformational behaviour could
mean for example, since similar behaviours across these roles would not
necessarily be equally effective. More specifically, trait or behavioural
approaches can be encompassed in certain sections of the model. For
example, research could explore the bidirectional relationship between
leadership and the contextual filter. One might examine how different leader
behaviours have an impact on the perceived effectiveness of reform within a
public organization (council, party, national government). Outside the influence on the public body, one could evaluate correlations over time between
leaders style and various outcome measures, such as employment or crime,
or perceptions of different stakeholder groups (business, community leaders,
minority groups). Ultimately, there may be a relationship between these
behaviours and (re)election. This goes beyond a straightforward translation
of trait-based accounts to this context since it foregrounds the complex,
interrelated nature of leadership. This more carefully qualifies the reach of
trait accounts.
Second, in terms of the geographical location, there is reason to believe

Morrell & Hartley A model of political leadership

that the challenges facing leaders, and their consequent requisite skills differ
in different localities. This is not simply a case of comparing effectiveness of
leadership in (say) a large, metropolitan area versus (say) a small rural
setting. Location may be a proxy for a range of differences relating to demography, technology, social cohesion, etc. So, a contingency approach could be
enhanced given the greater scope for modelling diversity encapsulated in the
contextual filter. More specifically, contingency approaches could be used
to develop hypotheses about the interaction between political leadership
roles and the context. Similarly, the effectiveness of leadership in an executive function may be a function of the balance of power in a council, or of
the type of executive arrangement (Leach & Wilson, 2002). This could be
examined further in the diversity of elected mayoral arrangements.
Third, one implication of cybernetics is that models should have
requisite variety in order to study or represent a context or scenario (Ashby,
1956). In other words they should have sufficient complexity in their design
to enable them to express the range of settings to which they are to be applied
(Heylighen, 1992). Figure 1 shows a way in which the diversity of local
government can be represented. The challenge of proposing a model of political leadership is that it needs to have sufficient variety built into it. This is not
possible with existing approaches, but acknowledging the diversity inherent
in the domains for political leadership could extend the reach of situational
accounts. For example, local government could be measured according to the
different dimensions and a rating could be given to them across each dimension (demography, community, technology, etc.). These could then be
examined to see how and why political leadership is situationally specific.
Additionally, situational approaches would suggest that certain kinds of
leadership behaviour are likely to be more suitable to particular roles (e.g.
scrutiny), than others (e.g. representative, or executive leadership).
Fourth, common to trait and contingency accounts in particular has
been an emphasis on the individual leader as homo clausus (enclosed man,
Elias, 1994), yet as Figure 2 illustrates, elected politicians work with others,
or build groups or coalitions. Equally, their authority is dependent on
consent. The model also illustrates how the particular context for a local
authority will: a) influence the interpretation of generic role profiles, and b)
influence the type of leadership behaviours deemed effective. The important
thing to note about these two relationships is that they describe a figuration,
an interdependent network of actors, and those actors themselves. Each
phenomenon (profile of desired skills, contextual filter, leadership) is relationally constructed, as represented by the thick bidirectional arrows. Since
leadership itself is a function of interrelations between various actors, this is
represented by the thin bidirectional arrows. This offers scope to develop



Human Relations 59(4)

constitutive accounts. One could study councils where there is perceived to

be a strong leader, and examine how far contextual factors engender this
perception; or alternatively explore to what extent perceptions of weak
leadership may be attributed to context. Establishing a bidirectional link
between the contextual filter and the four generic roles or profiles, and
between the contextual filter and leadership would provide a validation of
the constitutive approach, but could also enhance the reach of trait, contingency and situational approaches.

The detailed outline of the context for political leaders in Figure 1 offers
scope to develop the extant literature on leadership. Trait accounts may be
complemented or enhanced by this outline, since it stresses the importance
of context. Equally, contingency approaches may benefit from alternative
perspectives. Figure 1 illustrates how across various dimensions, a vast range
of different circumstances within which political leaders act can be modelled.
Acknowledging this can enhance the reach of situational models, since these
typically posit a limited range of scenarios and strategies (Hersey & Blanchard, 1988; Vroom & Yetton, 1973). Figure 2 details relational complexity and underlines the notion that leadership is in flux. Whilst constitutive
approaches are suited to exploring both these aspects of figurational sociology, the definition of political leaders, and discussion of particular roles
signal the importance of structural factors in understanding political leadership. By stipulating specific dimensions, operationalizing these, and suggesting particular behaviours, our approach may complement constitutive
accounts, offering a clearer empirical agenda for evaluating the ways in
which leadership is relationally constructed.
This article has offered a glimpse into the world of political leadership.
In doing so we provide a model that illustrates the complexity and inherent
diversity of the context for political leaders, addressing calls for further
theorizing (Leach & Wilson, 2002). The models presented serve a heuristic
purpose, as a summary of the ways in which contexts for political leadership
differ (Figure 1), and as a representation of the complex way in which
political leaders authority is configured (Figure 2). These also serve to orient
future research, enhancing the various types of approach to studying leadership (Grint, 2000). Trait and behavioural approaches can be used to explore
the relationship between the local context and the type of leadership that is
effective. Contingency approaches can be used to test propositions relating
to the effectiveness of particular behaviours in terms of the role of political
leaders and their particular context. Situational approaches can be used to

Morrell & Hartley A model of political leadership

test whether certain behaviours are more or less suitable in terms of political leaders generic roles, and examine leader behaviours across a range of
contexts. Constitutive approaches can be developed using this model to
extend the scope for empirical research through infrequently used paradigms,
such as interpretivism and ethnography. Aspects of this approach could be
extended to other contexts since, as we have argued, there are some generic
similarities across different forms of leadership. Studying political organizations can also shed light on generic issues in organizational behaviour
(Hartley, 2000). Here, however, our purpose has been to restate the importance and coherence of the political realm, allowing scope to explore this
complex and substantive area in new ways.

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Kevin Morrell is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Governance

and Public Management, Warwick Business School, University of Warwick.
Dr Morrells interests centre on behaviour within organizations. To date
he has carried out research into employee turnover, leadership, ethics
and value in organizations. The empirical context for his research has
been the public sector, viz. the National Health Service and UK local
government. As well as drawing out and substantiating the wider
implications of this research for other sectors, he has written cognate
theoretical papers that are not sector specific. Before joining Warwick
Business School, he was an ESRC postdoctoral fellow at Loughborough.
Jean Hartley is Professor of Organizational Analysis, Institute of
Governance and Public Management, Warwick Business School,
University of Warwick. She is an organizational psychologist, whose work
is concerned with political and managerial leadership, and organizational
innovation and improvement in public services, particularly central and
local government, health and the criminal justice system. She has
developed a tool for assessment and development of formal political
leadership, called the Warwick Political Leadership Questionnaire
(WPLQ). Professor Hartley has experience of evaluation research for
central and local government. She is currently the Research Director for
the research that is monitoring and evaluating the Beacon Scheme
concerned with interorganizational learning, innovation and improvement. She has recently been Lead Fellow of the ESRC/EPSRC Advanced
Institute of Management Public Services Group.