Political Leadership

  • Michael JohnstonEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_2242-1


Moral Standing Charismatic Leader Parliamentary Inquiry Autocratic Leadership Implicit Leadership Theory 
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A mutually recognized relationship between an individual or a small group, on the one hand, and a larger number of followers, sustained by transactional linkages with followers, enabling the leader(s) to persuade, set goals, and urge or discourage actions in ways that the followers do not ignore.


Leadership is an essential component of mass politics, public policy formation and implementation, nation and state building, conflict, and warfare, among a number of other concerns, yet the concept remains somewhat ill defined (for general analytical perspectives, see Blondel 1987; Edinger 1967; Elcock 2001; Jones 1989; Kellerman 1984, 1986; Paige 1977). During the first half of the twentieth century, perhaps in response to the rise of both democratic and undemocratic leaders enjoying considerable mass popularity – or at least mass followings and acquiescence – leadership was the focus of extended academic discussion. More recently, as interest has shifted toward grassroots politics, political psychology, the ways in which power is to be restrained rather than used, and the role of communications media, leadership has faded as a research focus. Indeed, in recent decades statements about the essence of leadership have tended to come more in the form of aphorisms on business motivational posters, or laments about the decline, absence, or poor quality of political leadership, than in the form of tightly argued definitions and analysis. At the same time, few would deny that leadership is a meaningful notion, or that it is a needed and valuable quality in politics, organizations, and society at large.

Complex and Varial Relationships

Most conceptions of leadership involve a relationship between leaders and followers – after all, a would-be leader with no followers is of little importance – although some may also dwell upon various qualities of the leaders themselves, such as background, appearance, rhetorical and persuasive skills, moral standing, and so forth. Collective leadership in various forms is encountered fairly frequently, but most views of leadership itself emphasize an individual leader.

Let us, for the sake of argument, define leadership as a mutually recognized relationship between an individual or a small group, on the one hand, and a larger number of followers, sustained by transactional linkages with followers, enabling the leader(s) to persuade, set goals, and urge or discourage actions in ways that the followers do not ignore.

That very general definition would exclude purely coercive relationships (although some varieties of leadership may have coercive elements or include the threat of coercion). It transcends fame or popularity, in that the ability to influence followers’ beliefs or actions is a central element of leadership but – while it may be a by-product of sorts – does not necessarily accompany or flow from fame or popularity themselves. It also differs from Weber’s (1958 ed.) classic typology of types of legitimacy or authority (legal, traditional, and charismatic) in the sense that the latter may be properties of an institution, regime, or a system of interactions, as well as of a leader, and that any of those forms of authority might exist without necessarily having consequences for followers’ behavior. Further, while those in positions of authority may be able to exercise leadership, it is easy to imagine a top figure in an insurgent movement who exercises considerable leadership with respect to that movement, yet does not possess broad social authority.

The tortured nature of the qualifications above illustrates a few of the reasons why leadership can be hard to define and why it may be more apparent by its absence than in some of its less dramatic, and effective, manifestations. The notion of influencing followers’ behavior can be fraught with logical difficulties: we might attribute mass behavior to the presence and appeals of a leader, but how do we know what the followers might or might not have done in the leader’s absence? Similarly, it is possible, even common, for a leader to take credit for outcomes that likely would have happened anyway or for mass beliefs or behavior that have other origins.

For that reason it is important to understand what leaders and followers offer and derive from their relationship and what sorts of resources leaders depend upon to maintain their position. While there is no agreed-upon typology of such forms of leadership, several types (as opposed to personal “styles”) might be worth pointing out. At various points, some of Weber’s themes will be evident here as well; and it is important to note that many cases of leadership will likely display more than one of the following characteristics.

Some forms of leadership, even though they involve relationships with followers, are less transactional than others. Autocratic leadership revolves around obedience of an individual (who may possess other leadership qualities as well). Often the specific threat or mere implication of coercion will be fundamental to the autocrat’s role. Followers, for their part, may derive the not inconsiderable benefit of avoiding such coercion, as well as a measure of derivative prestige that flows from identifying with, or being identified with, the autocrat.

Bureaucratic or rule-oriented leadership will depend upon the formal duties, functions, and powers of a leadership role, as well as upon a range of rewards and incentives that are normally dispensed through that bureaucracy (Egeberg and Trondal 2009). The rules and roles underlying bureaucratic leadership may specify extensive obligations, limitations, and entitlements for both leaders and followers and are not normally dependent upon the identities or personalities of individual leaders or followers. Much leadership in business and public administration exemplifies this category.

Charismatic leadership (Friedrich 1961; Willner 1968, 1985) rests critically upon emotional and symbolic relationships between leaders and mass followers. Unlike bureaucratic leadership, for example, the loyalties sustaining charismatic leaders attach to the person of the leader, rather than primarily to an office or a broader system of authority. “Charisma” is a term that has been much debased by overuse regarding what ordinary political leaders ought to offer. But the linguistic roots of the term, referring to one who has been anointed by God, give a clearer indication of the power (and rarity) of genuinely charismatic leadership. Such leaders may symbolize the shared identity, hopes, or resentments of a whole people and may even be seen by some as divinely chosen; in most instances they are highly skilled at the uses of language (Shamir et al. 1994) and symbols. The charismatic leader derives immense popularity – but may also be the focus of immense expectations – while followers receive emotional gratification, the opportunity to identify with an exceptional figure, and mutual reinforcement from other followers. Again, no consensus list of charismatic leaders exists; some have been accorded a kind of post hoc charismatic status after their death (e.g., John F. Kennedy, who during his lifetime was a popular but not wildly acclaimed, nor exceptionally effective, president). Better examples might be figures such as Gamal Abdel Nasser or Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Closely related to charisma is demagogic leadership. The demagogue, again, inspires intense emotions and is usually adept at using words and symbols to mobilize them in followers. But unlike the charismatic leader who inspires followers, a demagogic leader is more likely to use them, directing their emotions at some common enemy or scapegoat, or diverting attention from more immediate problems. Because leaders in mass electoral systems often find it useful to be very general about what they support and very specific about what they oppose (A notable exception was Lyndon Johnson who, at the end of a long day of campaigning in 1964, proclaimed “I just want to tell you this – we’re in favor of a lot of things and we’re against mighty few.” “Lyndon Johnson quotes” 2016), some elements of demagoguery may surface in otherwise healthy political processes, or at least charges of demagogic appeals may be frequent. But the true demagogue has malign intent transcending electoral advantage alone: Adolph Hitler’s targeting Jews as the source of Germany’s problems and resentments, or (in less extreme ways) contemporary politicians who cast immigrants in similar roles, show both the power and the negative potential of demagogic leadership and the essential role of mass response in this – as in any other – leader-follower relationship.

Consensual (or first among equals) leadership rests upon agreements, implicit as well as formal, and upon sustained trust among a number of participants in a managerial or decision-making process. The late Harold Wilson, twice prime minister of the United Kingdom, likened his leadership style to that of a sweeper or midfielder on a soccer football team – deploying people and tasks and then coordinating effort and resources to maintain a smoothly functioning government. A consensual leader may indeed have a personal agenda or set of goals, but consensus building (and maintenance) is central to this variety of leadership.

Nationalistic or identity-based leadership casts the leader as the embodiment or chief representative of a group’s or nation’s being – in effect, as exemplifying “us” as opposed to others. Depending upon the social composition of a nation or community, such leadership can be a strong unifying force, or sharply divisive; similarly, such a leader might mobilize followers toward positive goals, or derive credibility and power by skillfully articulating the group’s resentments. Times of crisis, or of major political transition, seem particularly likely to bring such leaders to the fore. Vaclav Havel was a positive example of such a leader; more negative examples abound in dictatorial regimes.

Some leaders build a following by buying it. Patronage-based or patron-client leaders recruit followers by making it worthwhile for them to get behind the leadership. Political machine bosses offered their followers a range of favors, and in some cases local government jobs, in exchange for their loyalty and political work at the neighborhood level. Their support, in turn, helped the boss win elections and maintain control of the sources of patronage. At times patronage-based leadership is portrayed in benevolent terms, but in fact it was aimed at maintaining a political monopoly; poor and working-class followers were not so much mobilized on behalf of their own interests as controlled in the service of the boss. Once in power, patronage-based leaders can be difficult to unseat by routine political processes, as their political monopoly makes it difficult for would-be competitors to build followings of their own. If they are ousted, it will more likely be via legal or other interventions from without – or because they have allowed their organization to “age” and get out of step with changes in the wider community.

Social or network-based leaders enjoy a status and degree of prestige that reflects personal popularity. There are parallels here to the consensual leaders noted above, but leadership in this category is likely to be more informal and social, drawing upon and reinforcing social capital rather than revolving around official roles and responsibilities. Many neighborhoods have a long-time resident, or a handful of them, whose prominence and local knowledge mean they are sought out for help and advice. Prominent local business people, educators, or clergy may also play similar roles. The reciprocities involved in such leadership may resemble those in a patronage organization, but followings are not disciplined or controlled, are unlikely to face any real competition, and are held together more by a sense of good will than by the systematic giving or withholding of rewards. Nonetheless, when a community problem surfaces, social leaders may well lead the way in organizing a political as well as social response.

Symbolic or figurehead leaders are known to all in a community or society, and while they exercise little or no formal power they can be powerful unifying influences. The classic example is Walter Bagehot’s Queen Victoria (and similarly, today’s Queen Elizabeth II) in the United Kingdom: as Bagehot made clear, the sovereign “reigns but does not rule.” Indeed, in his analysis the symbolic power of such figures depends upon their remaining above and apart from the day-to-day political fray. The symbolism involved can be of many sorts – patriotic, religious, historical, military, cultural, and other themes may be intertwined in complex ways. While the power and durability of such symbolic appeals should not be underestimated, they are potentially fragile and open to disruption; Bagehot famously warned against parliamentary inquiries into the monarchy by saying that “we must not let in daylight upon magic.” Still, symbolic leaders may at times influence government or management in subtle ways or, by example; Queen Elizabeth is widely believed to have influenced the conservative party’s choice of a leader (and thus of a new prime minister) in 1963 by quietly backing Alec Douglas-Home behind the scenes.

A final variation on leadership would include leaders or would-be leaders operating from a stance of dissent or criticism of the established order. Here we might include insurgents (political or military), whistleblowers, gadflies, scandalmongers, or campaigners for various causes, so long as they have discernible popular recognition. As they generally exist and act outside of mainstream institutions and dominant leader-follower relationships, such leaders may be weak and their careers short lived. But if they can capitalize upon a crisis, widely held resentments, exceptional moral standing, or the unpopularity of established leaders and regimes, and if they can build a following sustainable for the long run, such leaders can play major, even transformative roles. Mohandas Gandhi in India, Fidel Castro in 1950s Cuba, and Lech Walesa in 1980s Poland are examples of differing sorts. Here again, such leaders will be more successful if they can make use of some of the other appeals (charismatic, patron client, nationalistic) noted above and if they can offer diverse appeals to a range of constituencies and followers.


The varieties of leadership outlined above can overlap in many ways; indeed, highly effective leaders may simultaneously appeal to different constituencies in quite different ways. Each can be overlaid by the personal styles of particular leaders or strongly shaped by widely shared emotions and expectations on the part of followers. Collectively, however, they illustrate the variety of relationships that can arise between leaders and followers. Leadership can also be shaped by the distinctive needs and agendas of the leaders themselves – a “need for power”; a drive for wealth, popularity, or love; a desire to make a mark on history; or to avenge various personal or group slights, defeats, and deprivations may all drive individuals to seek leadership roles and to build followings.

Political leadership can differ from other varieties in terms of its formal sources of authority and of the types and extent of accountability to followers and wider publics that may be involved. It is distinctive in those respects from, say, corporate leadership. Leadership roles and powers can be abused – lying and corruption are examples – if leaders use their power and prestige in self-serving ways. Narcissism, in the popular senses of the term, may also arise if leaders use the prestige, power, and resources of their positions to build up their self-image or reputations, rather than to maintain the transactional relationship (whatever it may be) with followers. Particularly where mechanisms of popular accountability are strong, a leader who “wants to be something rather than do something” may quickly deplete his or her fund of legitimacy and good will.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science, EmeritusColgate UniversityHamiltonUSA