“Leadership”: a perniciously vague concept

Paul Spicker (Centre for Public Policy and Management, Aberdeen Business School, The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, UK)

International Journal of Public Sector Management

ISSN: 0951-3558

Publication date: 20 January 2012



Despite the vast amount of literature covering the concept of leadership, it remains contentious, under‐conceptualised and often uncritical. The purpose of this paper is to question the validity of the concept and dispute its application.


The paper reviews what the idea of leadership means, how it relates to competing accounts of management in the public services, and what value it adds.


There is no evident reason why the supposed roles, tasks, or qualities of “leadership” either need to be or should be concentrated in the person of a leader; the tasks involved in “leading” an organisation are not in fact the tasks of motivation, influence or direction of others which are at the core of the literature; and there is no reason to suppose that leadership is a primary influence on the behaviour of most organisations.

Practical implications

In the context of the public services, there is no set of skills, behaviours or roles that could be applied across the public services; the emphasis in leadership theory on personal relationships may be inconsistent with the objectives and character of the service; and the arrogation to a public service manager of a leadership role may be illegitimate.


The argument here represents a fundamental challenge to the concept of leadership, its relevance and its application to public services.



Spicker, P. (2012), "“Leadership”: a perniciously vague concept", International Journal of Public Sector Management, Vol. 25 No. 1, pp. 34-47. https://doi.org/10.1108/09513551211200276

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