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Puzzling about political leadership

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Political Leadership

Since Machiavelli, political leadership has been seen as the exercise of practical wisdom. We can gain insights through direct personal experience and sustained reflection. The core intangibles of leadership — empathy, intuition, creativity, courage, morality, judgement — are largely beyond the grasp of ‘scientific’ inquiry. Understanding leadership comes from living it: being led, living with and advising leaders, doing one’s own leading.

In sharp contrast, a ‘science of leadership’ has sprung up in the latter half of the twentieth century. Thousands of academics now make a living treating leadership as they would any other topic in the social sciences, and political leadership is no exception. These scholars treat it as an object of study, which can be picked apart and put together. Their papers fill journals, handbooks, conference programs, and lecture theatres. Some work in the real world of political leadership as consultants and advisers, often well paid. This buzzing, blooming confusion would not persist if such knowledge did not help in grasping at least some of the puzzles that leaders face and leadership poses. And there are puzzles aplenty.

The first puzzle is whether we are looking at the people we call leaders, or at the process we call leadership? Leader-centred analysis has proved hugely popular but many now prefer to understand political leadership as a two-way street; an interaction between leaders and followers, leaders and media, leaders and mass publics.

The second puzzle is whether we are studying democrats or dictators. Democracy needs good leadership yet the idea of leadership potentially conflicts with democracy’s egalitarian ethos. Political leaders holding office in democratic societies live in a complex moral universe. Other heads of government gained power by undemocratic means. They sometimes govern by fear, intimidation, and blackmail. Is that leadership? However, even such ‘leaders’ may aim for widely shared and morally acceptable goals and rule with the tacit consent of most of the population. Understanding leadership requires us to take in all its shades of grey: leading and following, heroes and villains, the capable and the inept, winners and losers.

Vlad Impaler Woodcut Markus Ayrer

The third puzzle ponders whether political leadership matters. Leaders use their political platforms to inject words, ideas, ambitions and emotions into the public arena, to shape public policies and transform communities and countries. But when do they make a difference? What stops them from being a force in society? Or are political leaders a product of their societies? Finding out who gets to lead can teach us much, not just about those leaders, but about the societies in which they work. So, we ask who becomes a political leader, how and why? What explains their rise and fall?

The fourth puzzle explores the relative importance of their personal characteristics and behaviour compared to the context in which they work. Sometimes political leaders are frail humans afloat on a sea of storms and sometimes they survive at the helm when few thought that possible. They achieve policy reforms and social changes against the odds, and the inherited wisdom perishes. How do political leaders escape the dead hand of history?

The fifth puzzle wonders if the success of leaders stems from their special qualities or traits – the so-called ‘great man’ theory of leadership. However, we have to entertain the possibility that these allegedly ‘great’ leaders might have been just plain lucky; that is they get what they want without trying. They are ‘systematically lucky’.

The sixth puzzle is about success and failure. How do we know when a political leader has been successful? The temptation is always to credit their success to their special qualities, but no public leader ever worked alone. Behind every ‘great’ leader are indispensable collaborators, advisers, mentors, and coalitions; the building blocks of the leader’s achievements.

Political leadership is both art and profession. Political leaders gain office promising to solve problems but more often than not they are defeated by our puzzles. There is no unified theory of leadership to guide them. There are too many definitions, and too many theories in too many disciplines. We do not agree on what leadership is, or how to study it, or even why we study it. The subject is not just beset by dichotomies; it is also multifaceted, and essentially contested. Leaders are beset by contingency and complexity, which is why so many leaders’ careers end in disappointment.


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Xiamen in the rainy season is a challenging climate but, undaunted, Gerry Stoker and I delivered between us eight three-hour lectures to a summer school of some 50 postgraduates.  The student audience was keen on photos and sent several photos of me in action.

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The weather was enervating. Language difficulties were inevitable. But the students were excellent and our hosts were charming. Best of all we went to a tea growing area and were introduced to the impressive variety that is Chinese tea. We went to the local tea museum and burnt incense for the Goddess of tea (we think, it wasn’t entirely clear).

Xiamen 020


The thunder storm was impressive. The driving was scary with the concepts of left and right socially constructed minute by minute.

Xiamen 007

Administrative ethnography in Copenhagen

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Karen and RodSix days of back-to-back papers sounds like a recipe for boredom by the megaton. Nothing could be further from the truth. The course for the PhDs was a joy – bright-eyed, bushy-tailed enthusiasm from all sides and some fascinating fieldwork to boot.

Administrative Ethnography group  In comparison, a workshop with colleagues could have been an anti-climax. Instead, it was an opportunity to share experiences with the like-minded colleagues in the photo. We seized it with both hands not only in the sessions but also in bars and restaurants. It wasn’t tiring or boring – it was refreshing.  For more information go to:

PSA Prize

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PSA awards


I was awarded a Special Recognition Award by the UK Political Studies Association. The award was the unanimous choice of a jury of distinguished academics and journalists who met recently at Westminster. The jurors agreed that Rod’s contribution to political science has been ‘outstanding and increased enormously our understanding of how government works and done much to raise the esteem of the discipline’. The award was presented by Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty (The National Council for Civil Liberties) at the recent Political Studies Association Annual Conference in Manchester.



The Craft of Governing

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With Glyn Davis (Melbourne), I organized and ran a workshop for Professor Patrick Weller to celebrate his impending formal retirement on his 70th birthday. The papers will be revised and published as a festschrift by Allen & Unwin. There were good papers, lively discussion and an amiable atmosphere captured by this photograph. For more information go to:


“Genre Blurring” and Political Science: What Can We Learn from the Humanities?

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I delivered the Inaugural Public Policy Annual Lecture at De Montfort University, 8th May 2013.

DE Montfort 2


British political science actively seeks greater professionalization. There is clear evidence of both institutionalization and specialization. This drive to professionalization now confronts the challenge of  blurred genres. Blurring genres involves drawing analogies and metaphors from the humanities. These analogies include the notions of game, drama, and text. I am claiming an ‘intellectual poaching  license’ for political scientists to hunt among the humanities. I have chosen two approaches that have great potential; the new political history and interpretive anthropology. In each case, after a broad  characterization of the approach, I proceed by discussing specific examples of craftsmanship. For the new political history, I examine the work of Maurice Cowling and Philip Williamson. For  interpretive anthropology, I examine the work of Emma Crewe and Cris Shore. Finally, I discuss how the general arguments of this paper apply to political science. My hunt suggests we focus on:  meanings, the symbolic, the local, the actual, the overlooked, the hidden, the inaccessible, the inconspicuous, and the ambiguous. In a phrase, I argue for the study of politics from below; for the intersection of ‘High Politics’ and ‘Low Politics’. (© 2013 R. A. W. Rhodes. Draft. Not for citation)

Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies

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I attended a meeting of the Global Governance Club at the National Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Science (NIAS), Wassenaar,  on the  30th and 31st May 2013.  I gave the keynote address on ‘Inside the Black Box of Executive Governance: high politics, low politics and the missing link’.  The weather was so good that we could have our group meetings on the lawn.


Copenhagen Business School

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I delivered a keynote address on Civil Service Reform to the Copenhagen Business School, Public-Private Platform, Collaboratory on ‘Policy into Practices’, University of Copenhagen, 23rd and 24th of May 2013. The photograph shows me with the organizers of the Collaboratory.
For a full account of the event see:

Report on collaboratory

The 2012 ISRPM and Routledge Prize

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I have just been awarded the International Research  Society for Public Management and Routledge prize for 2012. It  is awarded to “someone who has made a substantial contribution to public management research” (see:

The citation reads:

“Rod Rhodes is no doubt not only one of the most well-known public administration scholars but also someone who has renewed his research and research topics throughout his life. A prominent scholar in network theory in the eighties and nineties, but also an interesting observant of the changes in administrative life after that (see for instance: his work with Mark Bevir) and always good for an interesting provocative debate at conferences and seminars. Truly a remarkable and significant scholar in the field”.


It was presented in Prague on 11th April 2013.

Previous winners include Christopher Hood, Christopher Pollitt, and Fritz Scharpf.

40th Anniversary of Policy & Politics, Conference, Bristol, 2012

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I delivered a paper on ‘Political anthropology and public policy: prospects and limits’. It was keynote or plenary address to the Workshop on ‘Forty years of Policy & Politics: Critical reflections and strategies for the future’  at the University of Bristol, 18-19 September 2012.  The photograph is courtesy of the official conference photographer. For a full account of proceedings see:

The draft version of the paper is available under Online publications.

Policy and Politics Bristol Sept 2012