Different Perspectives on the Practice of Leadership

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Matthew R. Fairholm
University of South Dakota

Different Perspectives on the Practice of Leadership
Public administrators need not only practical and intellectual permission to exercise leadership, but also a practical and intellectual understanding of what leadership actually is. Much has emerged in the public administration literature and practice about the need for and legitimacy of public managers exerting leadership in their work, complementing the traditional functions of organizational management and policy implementation. Calling on the experiences and ideas of practitioners, this article offers an empirical understanding—both descriptive and prescriptive— of what leadership actually looks like as it is practiced by public managers. It uncovers five leadership perspectives (ranging from leadership as equivalent to scientific management, to leadership being a whole-soul or spiritual endeavor) held by public managers and discusses their implications for public administration. It legitimizes the notion that leadership is a crucial part of public administration and offers public managers the chance to improve or enhance those legitimate leadership activities.

Public administrators not only need practical and intellectual permission to exercise leadership, they need practical and intellectual understanding of what leadership actually is. Training public managers in the skills and techniques of leadership and management has become a

major part of public human resource efforts (Day 2000;
Sims 2002; Rainey and Kellough 2000; Ink 2000; Pynes
2003). Articles and essays have surfaced in the literature
about the need for and legitimacy of public managers exerting leadership in their work, complementing the traditional functions of organizational management and policy and program implementation. Books have emerged to lend

more specificity to the topic of leadership in the public
sector. Still, in the face of technicism, strict policy implementation, and a fear of administrative discretion, it has often been a significant struggle to discuss the philosophy
of leadership in public administration.
This article offers empirical insight, both descriptive
and prescriptive, about what leadership actually looks like
as practiced by public managers, and it supports a growing focus on leadership in the literature (Behn 1998; Terry 1995; Van Wart 2003). The research findings influence
public administration and the individual public administrator by first growing our basic understanding of leadership, refining our perceived public administration roles consistent with that understanding, and finally, reshaping the professional training of public administrators.

These new ideas about how public managers view and
practice leadership legitimize the notion that leadership
is inherent in and a crucial part of public administration,
and it offers public managers the chance to improve or
enhance those legitimate leadership activities. The hope
is that the current trend of building leadership and management capacity among practitioners will be undertaken with a more proper focus and with renewed theoretical
and practical vigor.

Background: The Leadership Apology in
Public Administration
Public administration traditionally is the study and work
of management in public organizations. It is also the study
and work of leadership in those organizations. Public administration emerged with a bias toward management science—the expert, the decision maker—but management science has not sufficiently served public administration

(McSwite 1997). Bennis (1993) suggests that managers
Matthew R. Fairholm is an assistant professor in the Political Science Department and the W. O. Farber Center for Civic Leadership at the University of South Dakota. His teaching and training experience spans the public, private, nonprofit, and university settings, including extensive training and consulting in the District of Columbia government...
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