Lessons from new leadership theory and current leadership development practice
by Kim Turnbull James
This paper was commissioned by The King’s Fund to inform the leadership commission.
(Commission on Leadership and Management in the NHS) (UK – 2011)
The views expressed are those of the author and not of the commission.
1 Executive summary 4
2 Lessons from new leadership theory 5
3 How can we translate these ideas into leadership development practice? 9
4 Leadership development in practice 11
5 Conclusions 18
1. Executive summary
This paper draws on academic leadership literature and leadership
development practice but is not based specifically on the health care
literature or on health care leadership development. Its purpose is to outline
some of the latest thinking in leadership theory and leadership development,
regardless of sector, in order that the implications for health care can be
The paper suggests that a traditional conception of leadership, in which
leadership is largely equated to leaders’ competences, behaviours and
values, needs at the very least to be expanded if leadership development
can meet the needs of complex organisations in the 21st century. Three
contentions are explored in this paper, each having an impact on leadership
■ that leadership involves multiple actors who take up leadership roles
both formally and informally, and importantly, share leadership by
working collaboratively, often across organisational or professional
■ that leadership can be distributed away from the top of an organisation
and this distribution takes the form of new practices and innovations
as well as ‘leaders at many levels’
■ that leadership needs to be understood in terms of leadership practices
and organisational interventions and not just in terms of leader
attributes and leader–follower relationships.
The implications for leadership development are that:
■ while competent leaders are important, development that is focused
on leader attributes alone will be insufficient to bring about desired
■ leadership development needs to be deeply embedded and driven out
of the context and the challenges that leaders in the organisation face
■ such leadership development focuses on roles, relations and practices
in the specific organisation context and requires conversations and
learning with people who share that context.
Three case studies of leadership development programmes which incorporate
these ideas are offered. They do not constitute a blueprint – as, indeed, the
paper suggests that leadership development needs to be contextual – but are
examples of the application of the principles explored in this paper.
2. Lessons from new leadership theory
Over recent years the increasing complexity of organisations has led to
an interest in leadership not limited to formally appointed leaders or top
leaders. There is much evidence that leadership is important throughout
an organisation and not just in roles labelled ‘leader’. Top leaders may not
have ‘sufficient and relevant information to make highly effective decisions
in a fast-changing and complex world’ (Pearce and Conger 2003, p 2) and
many critical leadership issues cannot be addressed by single leaders, even
at the top. Such examples include: collaboration rather than competition
among senior business unit managers; changes involving many teams or
units rather than falling within any one manager’s remit; breaking down ‘silo
thinking’ and adopting cross-organisation processes.
The new leadership model is differentiated from more traditionally
individualistic models of leadership (Senge and Kaeufer 2001; Fletcher
and Kaeufer 2003; Fletcher 2004). Rather than a focus on a set of personal
characteristics and attributes, in new constructions of leadership, people
who are normally thought of as leaders, heads of departments, directors,
team leaders, etc, are acknowledged to be supported by a network of
people engaging in leadership practices throughout the organisation and
who may never acquire the label of leader; social networks, teamwork,
shared accountability all contribute to leadership. For these to be effective,
organisations need to encourage spontaneous collaborations and support
people working together to introduce new initiatives.
This idea is encapsulated in the idea of postheroic leadership:
… postheroic leadership re-envisions the ‘who’ and ‘where’ of leadership
by focusing on the need to distribute the tasks and responsibilities of
leadership up, down, and across the hierarchy. It re-envisions the ‘what’
of leadership by articulating leadership as a social process that occurs in
and through human interactions, and it articulates the ‘how’ of leadership
by focusing on the more mutual, less hierarchical leadership practices and
skills needed to engage collaborative, collective learning. It is generally
recognized that this shift – from individual to collective, from control to
learning, from ‘self’ to ‘self-in-relation’, and from power over to power
with – is a paradigm shift in what it means to be a positional leader.
(Fletcher 2004, p 650)
It has even been suggested that the heroic model never accurately
represented leadership realities, even historically (Gronn 2002; 2003;
Fletcher and Kaeufer 2003; Seers et al 2003). Simpson and Hill (2008)
explore Wilberforce’s leadership and the abolition of the slave trade. Despite
the popular identification of Wilberforce as the leader associated with
abolition, they argue that his role was one among many people not identified
as ‘leaders’ but who nonetheless took key leadership roles in the momentous
change; conversational processes, power relations between different
interest groups, and the interplay of the ‘Clapham group’ with wider social
movements all challenged accepted values and beliefs, leading to abolition.
Leadership is relational (Uhl-Bien 2006) and contextual (Osborn et al 2002);
it is insufficiently explained by the notion of leaders and followers.
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