Practitioner leadership: a missing link in leadership theory

Penlington Clare (University of London, London, UK)
Holmstrom Kristi (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA)

International Journal of Leadership in Public Services

ISSN: 1747-9886

Publication date: 11 November 2013



In the collective or distributed leadership models that are now increasingly dominant in the literature about leadership in public services, the role of the “practitioner as leader” takes on powerful significance. The purpose of this paper is to address a gap in this corpus of research, which is a critical analysis of what constitutes the role of the practitioner leader, and the strengths and limitations of these informal leaders as agents of organisational change.


The paper develops a critical comparative analysis of the role of ordinary teachers and doctors as leaders, as a way of gaining purchase on what comprises and shapes the role of practitioner leader and the potential of this form of leadership to be a driver for quality improvements in the public sectors of education and health.


Traversing traditional academic divides and comparing medical and teacher leadership provides a clearer picture of how professional and organisational culture strongly influences the roles that practitioner leaders can take up and the influence they can wield. This comparison also shows that building capacity of practitioner leadership in the public services should be approached as an expansion of professional identity, rather than an “added extra” for keen few.


Importantly, this critical comparative review indicates that practitioner leadership is best understood and fostered as a particular ethical stance, rather than a special form of power or knowledge and that it occupies an interstitial space in between formal leadership structures and ordinary practitioners. This is both its strength and its weakness as a form of leadership.



Penlington, C. and Holmstrom, K. (2013), "Practitioner leadership: a missing link in leadership theory", International Journal of Leadership in Public Services, Vol. 9 No. 1/2, pp. 32-46.

Download as .RIS



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2013, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Please note you might not have access to this content

You may be able to access this content by login via Shibboleth, Open Athens or with your Emerald account.
If you would like to contact us about accessing this content, click the button and fill out the form.
To rent this content from Deepdyve, please click the button.