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Critical Analysis of the Role of Leadership in Improving Performance in Public Sector Organisations Case Study

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Distributed leadership is a post-heroic understanding of leadership that advocates the liberation from bureaucracy and strengthening of stakeholder involvement (Jackson 2000, p. 70). It has traits that make it relevant for public firms that are in need of a turnaround in performance (Harris, 2005, p. 82).

Integrity or openness to criticism, delegation of duties and networking are some of the qualities that reflect distributed leadership.

Ciulla (2004) Currie & Locket (2007) and Gronn (2002) are among the advocates of distributed leadership, and their support stems from the shortcomings that are found in transformational leadership.

Moreover, Alimo-Metcalfe, Alban-Metcalfe, Heck, Hallinger and Harris are some of the key theorists in distributed leadership. They expound on the centrality of cooperation, expert input and openness of leadership boundaries within this form of leadership.

This paper will focus on characteristics of the leadership model, particularly how it relates to performance management, change management and organisational structure.

Performance management can lead to effective performance by facilitating goal definition, proper development of performance management systems, as well as role clarification. Distributed leadership can streamline these aspects.

Change management is necessary in turnaround situations, and organisational structure alters decision-making and control issues, thus affecting how a company accomplishes impressive performance. The report will examine how distributed leadership may translate these processes into high performance.

It will then apply these aforementioned theories to a case study about a police force called Blackshire (Walshe et. al., 2009, p. 12).1 This institution was experiencing problems as a result of poor leadership.

The report will focus on how distributed leadership could have prevented some of these problems, as well as providing some suggestions on how the institution can improve its current leadership approach on the basis of the theory.

Distributed Leadership Theory

Definition of distributed leadership and how organisations effect it

A number of characteristics make distributed leadership distinct.

The first quality is that it encapsulates a network of individuals interacting with one another.

Unlike other theories of leadership like transactional and transformational leadership, which dwell on the individual, this approach emphasises the involvement of groups of people in leadership. The emphasis, therefore, is collaborative action not the sum of individual efforts (Harris, 2005, p. 82).

Secondly, distributed leadership has open boundaries. Organisations can expand their leadership to a wide number of people because no limits exist on how wide one can cast this leadership net.

From this perspective, adherents of the distributed leadership model advocate the expansion of stakeholders and encourage their involvement as leaders (Heck and Hallinger, 2005 p.233).

For instance, in the context of an educational establishment, instead of merely including the teachers in leadership, a school can expand its community of stakeholders to include students or parents. Conversely, transformational leadership would have closed boundaries as formal leaders would wield most control.

Thirdly, this form of leadership involves the belief that experts exist in different facets of the organisation. By bringing the ideas and perspectives of those experts, an organisation can strengthen its capabilities.

Moreover, when an expert uses their skills to initiate a concept, then the trust and support of others will sharpen the initiative (Alimo-Metcalfe, 2000, p.42). In transactional and transformational leadership, experts lack decision-making power (Alimo-Metcalfe & Alban-Metcalfe 2005, p. 53).

Autonomy and control in the distributed leadership model is varied. It may emanate from members in senior authority or low-level employees. However, it is sometimes effective to let formal leaders establish certain values and goals because they are accountable to external parties for the performance of the institution.

In addition, the organisational culture has a substantial influence on the effectiveness of distributed leadership. Thus, if an institution has had a long-standing culture of non-participation, the distributed leadership models could yield high levels of passivity.

These choices of autonomy and control are not available to individuals in transformational and transactional leadership models (Currie & Lockett, 2007, p. 353).

Organisations in the public sector may have to pioneer cultural change if pre-existing cultures are incompatible with shared leadership. The source of change in distributed leadership is also diverse (Currie & Lockett, 2007, p. 361).

It may come from an external policy or stimulus, such as members of the community served by the public organisation. They may place pressure on the institution to change, which could potentially require a complete cultural shift. Conversely, it may emanate from within, by formal leaders or members of the network.

Sometimes it may come from an external policy or stimulus, such as members of the community served by the public organisation, who may place pressure on the institution to change. This could require a cultural shift. Conversely, it may emanate from formal leaders or members of the network.

One should note, that although distributed leadership emphasises the importance of a collective effort, it is still compatible with top-down leadership, wherein projects and initiatives are granted from charismatic leaders.

However, the key difference between attempts at organisational change in traditional transformational leadership and distributed leadership, is the strong partnership between the leader and other members of the organisation during this change (Crosby & Bryson, 2005, p. 80).

Additionally, the question of whether distributed leadership can fit into pre-set structures warrants some attention. In order to foster a long-term orientation, public organisations ought to have team structures and committees as some of the forms of distributed leadership (Crosby & Bryson, 2005, p. 80).

However, these structures need not determine how leadership manifests itself. The fluid nature of distributed leadership places greater precedence on one’s expertise rather than one’s position. Conversely transformational leadership rests on formal leadership.

Moreover, for this level of spontaneity to work, the public firm ought to have a high degree of support and trust from amongst its team members. Therefore, leader-and-follower distinctions may not be clear, which may necessitate formal accountability structures to be in place.

A realisation in the limitations of charismatic leadership has necessitated the shift towards distributed leadership within the public sector. Gronn (2002, p. 9) challenges the fact that leadership should revolve around one individual alone.

He asserts that leadership is not mythically or contingent upon any special powers of an individual. In reality, Ciulla (2004, p. 67) adds that overreliance on one person may create a form of cult of these leaders.

Followers may pay heavily for criticising the leadership while the seniors themselves may claim ownership over all organisational success, even when others contributed to the effort.

Narcissism and self-serving leadership thrives in a charisma-oriented organisation, and this could lead to failure (Currie & Lockett, 2007, p. 359).

It is for these reasons that many public institutions are embracing inclusive leadership as this approach has built-in mechanisms to ensure accountability, as well as ownership of decisions.

Traits in distributed leadership that lead to performance improvement

Public organisations have formal leaders who still play a crucial role in the enforcement of distributed leadership (Hartley, 2007, p. 203). Senior leaders often network among their internal and external stakeholders in order to cause change. Therefore, this attribute mirrors transformational leadership.

They usually expand the number of contacts that they have and build trust among them. Moreover, sensitivity to key players’ agenda (both external and internal) is crucial in causing performance improvement (Alimo-Metcalfe & Alban-Metcalfe 2005, p. 66).

In the context of the UK public sector domain, this is vital as inter-agency collaboration is common and in certain cases, it is expected. Successful leadership therefore, unites differing institutions in order to facilitate a shared vision.

One cannot overemphasise the significance of delegation as a means of improving performance within organisations. Public organisations must empower their staff to think strategically and to develop solutions for impending problems. This causes them to take responsibility over performance improvement.

In the transformational leadership model, leaders think of delegation as a favour to their subordinates (Currie et. al., 2005, p. 266). Individuals who exercise decision-making powers do not dilute the leader’s power.

However, in distributed leadership, a formal leader may have to give true discretion over issues. This implies a slight degree of disempowerment for the senior authority (Alimo-Metcalfe, 2000, p.109).

Alimo-Metcalfe & Alban-Metcalfe (2005, p.70) stress the importance of integrity as another essential quality to facilitate performance improvement.

Such ethical and moral standards are prerequisites to the establishment of effective distributed-leadership, as leaders need to deal with their fellow members in an equitable and consistent way.

In the distributed model, one ought to embrace values of humility and exhibit vulnerability; hence when a person is wrong, they should admit their mistakes. Alimo-Metcalfe & Alban-Metcalfe (2005, p. 56) stress that transformational leadership makes it difficult to ask questions as leaders have a cult-like following.

Adherents of the distributed leadership model must therefore give precedence to the good of the organisation rather than their personal ambition or needs. Openness to criticism amongst senior authorities in distributed leadership should make them alter their views after listening to others.

Modification ought to occur genuinely rather than as a reactionary response to others threatening effectiveness (Hennessey, 1998, p.525). In this model, workers will pursue task objectives because of the internationalisation of their core values, if they regard their work roles as crucial elements of their identity.

In line with vulnerability and transparency is the ease of accessibility. Employees in distributed leadership have open access to formal leaders, regardless of their schedules. The degree of formality ought to be minimal as this will facilitate openness and honesty. (Hartley, 2007, p.207).

Performance management in the public sector and its relevance to distributed leadership

Performance management is a critical aspect of the overall organisational performance because it allows public sector institutions to link results, objectives and individual objectives. It is the means with which organisations merge fundamental aspects of their function (De Bruijn, 2001, p. 15).

Effective performance management occurs when performance assessment and strategies are in the hands of the concerned agencies, whereby they take ownership over their performance system (Jas & Skelcher, 2005, p.199).

In the public sector, an external body may have to conduct performance auditing. In this regard, it is the prerogative of the public institution to use distributed leadership in order to foster cooperation with such parties (Theil & Leeuw, 2002, p. 276).

The company may ascertain where the majority of weaknesses lie and therefore use recommendations from the auditing body to improve this. In a situation where performance assessment occurs within the same public institution, then distributed leadership would assist them in taking ownership over such a system.

It would allow members to contribute towards performance management systems, and thus allow them to understand the consequences of their actions. Nonetheless, the spirit of cooperation with other bodies would also require public firms to collaborate with agencies to operate within a strategic framework.

The national auditing authority for the Parliament of Australia, ANAO (2005, p.14), identify certain factors that facilitate effective performance management, and hence improvement in public firms.

One of these is alignment wherein public organisations ought to align their performance management systems with their company goals. In order for this to occur, they need to have performance measurement systems that illustrate how effective their performance management efforts are.

Additionally, they can ensure alignment by creating systems that support performance management.

Distributed leadership can assist public institutions to achieve this alignment by establishing the necessary support mechanisms (Coulson, 2009). In addition, it can facilitate in the creation of performance assessment systems.

Performance management is only effective when systems are credible. Credibility may come about when companies match rhetoric with reality (Theil & Leeuw, 2002, p. 268). A number of public institutions exhibit gaps between what they expect in performance, as well as how they implement performance systems.

ANAO (2005, p. 55) found that many employees in the public sector were sceptical about performance management because they disagreed with performance-pay criteria, deeming it as unfair.

A number of them complained about favouritism and bias in the implementation of reward decisions, whereas others felt that reward incentives were not sufficient enough to motivate them.

Certain public sector employers in the Australian survey revealed that they did not understand qualities that warranted effective performances (ANAO, 2005). Therefore, problems in role clarification were a key impediment to success.

Staff members could not see the association between performances management at the organisational level and their personal contributions. If these problems exist in a public institution, then it is highly unlikely that performance management and improvement will occur.

Distributed leadership has the potential to be an antidote to these problems, by directly involving the workforce in the development of the performance management system.

If staff members regard each other as partners in the performance system, they are more likely to discuss and eliminate glitches in performance management. They may agree on the goals of performance management and determine how this relates to their individual contributions (Hodgson et. al., 2007).

They would also clarify the qualities that constitute as effective performance through a coherent consensus. This system would therefore eradicate favouritism, as it would increase mutual support and trust between all parties affected by the institution.

Thirdly, performance management can only lead to performance improvement if the concerned institution integrates it with other structures. Some organisations may not integrate work structures with performance management, and this could lead to complications in the provision of services.

Distributed leadership models call for a holistic focus on service provision. Hence, if members work together, chances are that they will have better direction on achieving their goals, as well as performance systems that they should include (Hodgson et. al., 2007, p. 361).

Change management for performance improvement through distributed leadership

Change management is a mechanism that may need to be implemented if an organisation continually records low levels of performance. The collaborative nature of distributed leadership may seem contradictory to change management, however in times of crises or succession, the concept may be inevitable.

Furthermore, it can still occur within top-down structures, but through the use of distributed leadership principles.

As expressed by Pollitt (2009, p.288), leaders ought to follow a series of steps when instating change. He believes that most public companies fail as a result of communicating the need for change too formally.

Alternatively, they may wait until it is too late to do so. Ritual forming can sometimes be necessary to create a new vision in a public organisation.

In the distributed model, a formal leader must communicate this need early enough because the methodology already entails that regular contact between the rest of the employees and the company leader is taking place.

In terms of performance, change management can only lead to an improvement when a clear action plan is available (Jones, 2004). Sometimes this refers to structural change or other elements of the organisation’s functions.

In other forms of leadership, the action plan would originate from senior management to a single individual. However, this is not tenable in distributed leadership. Subsequently, in the context of the public sector, a system would be implemented to collate members’ input on how to cause change effectively.

Attaining internal support is a necessary part of successful change management. Leaders must foster participation and tackle internal resistance. They should allow resistors to have a relative degree of flexibility because some of their objections may be genuine (Ingraham and Van Slyke, 2006, p. 394).

In distributed leadership, internal resistance ought to lead to alterations in elements of the plan because it engages people. Thus, distributed leadership would assist in building internal support and validating some of the objections raised by members.

In tandem with internal cooperation, effective organisations need to also build support from external communities. Soliciting external support is rather difficult for public organisations, but since they provide services to the public, consulting with this group is imperative.

Distributed leadership streamlines this process because it facilitates relationship-building between external and internal stakeholders of a public firm.

Therefore, importing for support from them during a change initiative would be done effectively. As such, their chances of improving performance will be quite high (Borins, 2000, p. 501).

Resource congruence is also imperative in translating change management to effective performance improvement. When organisations want to build effective ways of accomplishing change, they need substantial resources to do so.

Distributed leadership would assist in garnering sufficient resources because all the key contributors to institutional budgets would be working regularly with members of the organisation (Jones, 2004, p. 52).

Perhaps one of the most critical parameters for yielding performance improvement in change management is the actual implementation of the change process. Daily routines need to have change embedded in them.

Thus, training, information technology use, job roles, even behaviour during meetings ought to reflect these new amendments.

Distributed leadership would match perfectly with the constant-change model as it would cause individuals to identify areas that require improvement and also facilitate these transitions on a day-to-day basis (Pollitt, 2009, p. 291).

Organisational structure and performance improvement through distributed leadership

Organisational structure concerns itself with how companies distribute decision-making powers. Most public service firms are laden with bureaucracies, such that this aspect of power lies at the top of the organisational structure.

However, in democracies, wherein elected officials, control agencies, line managers and other officers must work together, it becomes increasingly hard for ordinary employees to make decisions. Elected officials tend to safeguard as much of this power as possible (Borins, 2000, p. 505).

Additionally, control agencies try to do the same. Thus, line managers may find it extremely difficult to make strategic decisions because of a myriad of rules and regulations that constrain them. These include procurement systems, human resource policies, budget instructions and auditing practice.

The result of such an approach is the inability of government firms to respond to their external environment. However, in the case of distributed leadership, this attempts to break these constraints through the organisational structure.

The model redistributes power, allowing members to respond creatively and speedily to the needs of their clientele. This would have been somewhat unattainable if all employees had to wait for directions from the top of the hierarchy (Osborne, 2007, p. 13).

One may presume that when organisations redistribute decision-making power, those who initially had it will lose it; but this is not always true. Modifying the point of control in also necessitates a reorientation of the form of control (Walker, 2001, p. 316).

These institutions rely on different approaches other than commands and inspections to affect decision-making processes. They often commit to getting certain results and then allow flexibility in the accomplishment of those results.

Some of the mechanisms employed in distributed leadership include performance measurement, determination of results that must be achieved and a responsibility towards the consequences of actions.

Some public organisations cannot simply eliminate rules and procedures; therefore, the distributed model allows them to streamline those procedures with the aim of freeing firms from central control (Pollitt, 2009, p. 290).

Employees in public institutions often feel frustrated by procurement and budget constraints from large systems. Consequently, they require trust from higher levels of management in order to get their job done, and this may imply loosening control from the central authorities.

Perhaps another way in which distributed leadership affects performance is through community empowerment.

In the context of public sector organisations, these institutions are willing to share power with communities so that they can determine service outcomes on the basis of what is available (Osborne, 2007, p. 9).

The approach manifests itself through parental involvement, as well as community policing. It may also involve business associations if the public organisation focuses on these groups as their primary consumers.

Obstacles to the realisation of performance improvement through distributed leadership

It is a myth to presume that distributed leadership only involves collaboration. Conflict may arise during an attempt to share leadership with other persons, and if organisations do not acknowledge and deal with it, then only minimal performance improvements will be accomplished (Pollitt and Bouckaert, 2004, p.194).

Sometimes when groups work together to cause organisational change, they may disagree on crucial points of reference. For instance, if an organisation works on redefining its goals and visions, then members of the institution may disagree on what constitutes as these elements.

To further illustrate, public institutions have constrained resources, so many stakeholders may object to the allocation of finances (Jackson, 2000, p. 68). Some of them may believe that their portfolios warrant greater resource deployment than others.

If leaders do not address these conflicts, then change may not occur, and organisations will maintain the status quo.

However public firms that do employ distributed leadership models, have the opportunity to use conflict for their benefit by consolidating divergent opinions and using them as a focal point of discussion and growth (Flessa, 2009). A case in point is a public school in which the principal wanted to achieve rapid results.

He felt that accountability mechanisms were the way to go, and he quickly introduced it. Many of the teachers in the institution opposed the new system and even decided to spearhead a movement against the principal. Their actions eventually resulted in an investigation of the school.

One can ascertain from this example that this conflict did not achieve performance improvement through better test scores; in reality the institution took a step back with regards to their usual achievement.

Case Study Analysis

Blackshire Police Force may have suffered from an overemphasis on individual leadership. A high degree of passivity existed in the institution, with many of its members failing to take responsibility for their actions (Ciulla, 2004, p. 93).

When leadership lacked ambition after the death of the chief constable, the rest of the force also became unmotivated. Therefore, one could suggest that the force became a casualty of the deficiencies of its central leaders (Currie et. al., 2005, p. 266). This explains why their performance was abysmal.

Conversely, when the force introduced a new chief constable, things changed for the better. He was open with his staff members, as well as the external community (Walshe et. al., 2009, p. 12).

It is likely that this dispersion of attention away from the top may have led to the positive outcomes; however, since the force is yet to tackle other issues, then further entrenchment of distributed leadership may be imperative.

Alimo-Metcalfe & Alban-Metcalfe (2005, p. 60) affirm that networking is critical to the success of public sector leaders. They believe that this should entail establishing and strengthening contacts between the public institution and its internal and external community.

In relation to the Blackshire Force, it seems there was a significant lack of shareholder networking, which may have led to certain performance problems. The nature of their mandate stipulates that it is required for staff members to network and engagement with the Blackshire community.

Thus, had authorities within Blackshire worked with vulnerable peoples or neighbourhoods with endemic violent crimes, they would have recorded excellent performance during the 2005 and 2006 HMC assessment (Martin et. al., 2009, p. 769).

At present, the organisation is deliberating over future plans, such as scaling up or becoming part of a larger structure (Walshe et. al., 2009, p. 12). If this strategy is to sustain new performance improvement, then the organisation should consider genuine discretion of decision-making amongst its members.

The force already has experts in certain areas of policing. Formal leaders will need to give up control and allow their staff members to take ownership of decisions after scaling up (Alimo-Metcalfe, 2000, p. 50).

Blackshire initially had challenges with performance improvement because of a number of anomalies identified in the literature. First, the institution did not work with the external body (HMIC2) in order to improve performance (Walshe et. al., 2009, p. 12).

Theoretically speaking, had a relationship with the auditing body been ensured, it would have had a better understanding of targets and performances.

Distributed leadership moves beyond working with internal organisational stakeholders alone, as it also advocates for expansion of leadership to external communities (De Bruijn, 2001, p. 171).

Additionally, challenges in performance management may have also arisen out a lack of the three qualities for effective systems: integration, alignment and credibility. Previously, members of the force did not understand what constitutes good performance. Therefore, credibility of the system was a challenge.

They addressed this problem by clarifying their mission and values. In the future, it is advisable for the force to consider input from all their members in order to boost outcomes (De Bruijn 2001). Integration of performance management with work is essential in improving performance.

In the case analysis, it is not clear whether the concerned institution created an action plan for the change process. However, it is clear that most of the ideas in the turnaround came from senior management.

In order to create an association between change management and performances improvement, Blackshire will need to involve more of its employees in the process of causing change (Spillane et. al., 2001, p. 28).

It is likely that the organisational restructure elicited positive results due to the use of elements from distributed leadership. One of them includes building support from the Police Federation and the community members.

The concept of intelligence-led policing would not have yielded any results if it occurred in isolation. Distributed leadership would cause the institution to make change a strategic issue by using ideas from members on a regular basis (Muijs and Harris, 2007, p. 112).

Employees in Blackshire force adhere to a traditional methodology of leadership, whereby they appear to rely heavily on central authorities to make decisions (Flessa, 2009, p. 337). Distributed leadership however, requires public firms to think about ways in which they can restructure, and hence empower their employees.

The force most likely has certain experts who have specialised in different components of service provision. It will be imperative for the company to trust them with a range of decisions. In the current state, as well as in the past, the force has placed so much emphasis on central control.

For greater performance improvement, the organisation should allow its employees to make decisions that directly relate to their area of expertise (Hartley & Allison, 2000, p. 38).


Distributed leadership possesses certain traits that can lead to performance improvement, such as, delegation, networking and openness to criticism. Delegation occurs when public organisations empower their staff to think strategically and develop solutions for impending problems.

Networking occurs by collaborating with internal and external stakeholders in order to cause change. Openness to criticism occurs by genuine responses rather than as a reactionary response to others’ threatening behaviour.

These qualities stem from expansion of the leadership net, empowerment of experts to make decisions throughout the organisation and valuing membership input throughout the year.

Leadership is flexible and autonomous, which denotes that change management, performance management, as well as organisational structure involve everyone. The result is better communication, decision making and ownership of performance management systems.

In the area of performance management, public institutions use distributed leadership to foster cooperation with external bodies that conduct performance auditing. Leadership in the distributed model establishes support systems that illustrate how effective their performance management efforts are.

Distributed leadership has the potential to be an antidote to problems in performance measurement, by directly involving the workforce in the development of the performance management system.

It causes staff members to regard each other as partners in the performance system as they are more likely to discuss and eliminate glitches. Distributed leadership causes them to agree on goals of performance management and determine how this relates to their individual contributions.

They also clarify the qualities that constitute effective performance through a coherent consensus. This leadership model, therefore, eradicates favouritism, as it increases mutual support and trust between parties.

In the case of Blackshire Police Force, initially they did not network with members of the community, hence the cause of its low outcomes. Additionally, it placed too much emphasis on individual leadership.

However, the implementation of distributed leadership principles led to a positive change via the cooperation of stakeholders during planning and implementation stages of performance management. Thus, Blackshire force needs to consider greater inclusiveness in managing performance.

Distributed leadership may also improve performance through reorientation of organisational structure, wherein it encourages the decentralisation of decision making.

Blackshire will need to enact this radically in the future. Distributed leadership leads to better handling of conflict in group collaboration. Furthermore, for future considerations, Blackshire force should embrace conflict as a learning platform.


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1 Blackshire Police force was a county force that had stable leadership for decades. After the passing of its leader, the institution experienced a period of turmoil where they recorded poor performance management, as assessed through HMIC. Later, they got a stronger leader who involved members in organizational decisions.

2 Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary

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1. IvyPanda. "Critical Analysis of the Role of Leadership in Improving Performance in Public Sector Organisations." July 8, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/critical-analysis-of-the-role-of-leadership-in-improving-performance-in-public-sector-organisations/.


IvyPanda. "Critical Analysis of the Role of Leadership in Improving Performance in Public Sector Organisations." July 8, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/critical-analysis-of-the-role-of-leadership-in-improving-performance-in-public-sector-organisations/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "Critical Analysis of the Role of Leadership in Improving Performance in Public Sector Organisations." July 8, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/critical-analysis-of-the-role-of-leadership-in-improving-performance-in-public-sector-organisations/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'Critical Analysis of the Role of Leadership in Improving Performance in Public Sector Organisations'. 8 July.

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