Public sector leadership in developing countries: the nature and character of leadership among mid-level managers in Bangladesh

Shibaab Rahman, Quamrul Alam, Julian Teicher, Bernadine Van Gramberg

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference PaperOther


Public leadership (PL) is receiving increasing attention from public management scholars. Its prominence owes much to the process of reforms implemented under the rubric of New Public Management (NPM). Generally, NPM borrowed ideas and practices from the private sector and its advocates sought to instill them within government in pursuit of efficiency and effectiveness. Among the implications for public managers were greater discretion and autonomy to exercise leadership that could harness the agency of public servants to effectively manage public organizations. Such developments also influenced research in PL that for the most part borrowed from models that were derived in the private sector context such as transactional and transformational leadership.

A major criticism of NPM was that its narrow focus on efficiency was sometimes at odds with institutions such as accountability to parliament and democratic participation of non-state actors. Consequently, governments have increasingly given precedence to these concerns in post-NPM reforms embracing ideas of collaborative and network governance. Initiatives such as whole-of-government became a key feature and cooperation with the not-for-profit sector and citizens to deliver public outcomes became imperatives in some nations. This changing context required public managers to work across organizational boundaries in collaboration with varied stakeholders, contrary to the hierarchical and intra-organizational focus under NPM. Such developments have precipitated a rethinking of PL theory. Emerging models of collaborative and integrative leadership now focus on sharing and distributing leadership across different actors in collaborations and networks rather than rely on single individual leaders.

While NPM and post-NPM reforms have proliferated in both developed and developing countries, the challenges have been far greater in the latter. Issues ranging from institutional inertia, politicization of administration, and corruption have compromised modernization efforts. So while the legacy of NPM inspired public management reforms, there has been a greater consciousness of the importance of public leadership in developing countries. Coupled with an inefficient public sector and deepening socio-economic and governance problems, the need for understanding and implementing effective public leadership is a key challenge for many developing countries.

This study examines the challenges of PL in one developing country, Bangladesh. Existing conceptions of PL are strongly embedded in developed countries and borrow heavily from the private sector. This makes it difficult to apply existing theory to developing countries where the contextual reality of public management is starkly different. Using a qualitative research design we explore the understandings of PL by analyzing data collected from interviews with 87 middle and senior public servants. A qualitative method was chosen as a result of gaps identified in PL theory in developing countries, which consequently enabled contextualization of PL in such a setting. Findings suggest issues of hierarchies, extreme centralization, political patronage and an overall resistance to change create challenges for leadership to be exercised. Furthermore, a more authoritative leadership seemed to be preferred by participants as effective leadership.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe 21st International Research Society for Public Management (IRSPM) Conference in Budapest, Hungary
Publication statusPublished - 2017
Event21st Annual Conference of the International Research Society on Public Management - Corvinus University, Budapest, Hungary
Duration: 19 Apr 201721 Jul 2017
Conference number: 21st


Conference21st Annual Conference of the International Research Society on Public Management
Abbreviated titleIRSPM 2017
Internet address

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