Fourth edition

by Andrew Heywood

Chapter 13: Political Executives and Leadership

  • What is the executive branch of government? What does it comprise?
  • What are the principal functions of political executives?
  • How do presidential executives differ from parliamentary executives?
  • Where does power lie in political executives?
  • How should political leadership be understood and explained?
  • Is there a crisis of leadership in modern politics?

The executive is the irreducible core of government. Political systems can operate without constitutions, assemblies, judiciaries and even parties, but they cannot survive without an executive branch to formulate government policy and ensure that it is implemented. Such is the potential power of executives that much of political development has taken the form of attempts to check or constrain them, either by forcing them to operate within a constitutional framework, or by making them accountable to a popular assembly or democratic electorate. Political executives, and particularly chief executives, are certainly the face of politics with which the general public is most familiar. This is because the executive is the source of political leadership. This role has been greatly enhanced by the widening responsibilities of the state in both the domestic and international realms, and the media's tendency to portray politics in terms of personalities. However, the hopes and expectations focused on executives may also prove to be their undoing. In many political systems, leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to 'deliver the goods'. Debate about the nature, extent and implications of executive power are, nevertheless, linked to the wider issue of political leadership. Widely seen as a vital ingredient of politics, providing it with a necessary sense of purpose and direction, leadership has been interpreted in a variety of ways, ranging from a personal gift to a bureaucratic device. Similarly, leadership can involve a variety of styles, strategies and approaches, affecting not only its effectiveness but also the relationship between leadership and democracy.

  • The executive branch of government is responsible for the execution or implementation of policy. The political executive comprises a core of senior figures and is roughly equivalent to 'the government of the day' or 'the administration'. The bureaucratic executive consists of public officials or civil servants. However, the political/bureaucratic distinction is often blurred by the complexities of the policy-making process.
  • Political executives act as the 'commanding heights' of the state apparatus and carry out a number of leadership roles. These include representing the state on ceremonial occasions, offering policy-making leadership in relation to strategic priorities, mobilizing popular support for the government or administration, overseeing the bureaucratic machine, and taking the initiative in the event of domestic or international crises.
  • Presidential executives concentrate executive power in the hands of a president who combines the roles of head of state and head of government, but confronts an assembly that enjoys constitutional and political independence. Prime ministers in parliamentary systems operate through two key sets of relationships: the first is with their cabinets, ministers and departments; the second is with their parties and the assembly from which their power stems.
  • The power of chief executives has been enhanced by the tendency of the media and electoral politics to focus on personality and image, by the opportunities to display statesmanship provided by international affairs and summitry, and by the need for political and ideological leadership within an increasingly large and complex executive branch. Their power is, nevertheless, checked by the importance of government and party unity, the need to maintain support in the assembly, and the difficulty of controlling the sprawling bureaucratic machine.
  • Political leadership has been understood in various ways. It has been interpreted as a personal gift based on individual qualities such as charisma, as a sociological phenomenon in which leaders express particular sociohistorical forces, as an organizational necessity rooted in the need for coherence and unity of direction, and as a political skill that can be learned by leaders intent on manipulating their colleagues and the masses.
  • Leaders have adopted very different strategies to achieve their goals. Laissez-faire leadership attempts to foster harmony and teamwork by broadening the responsibilities of subordinates. Transactional leadership allows leaders to act as brokers, and balance rival factions and interests against each other. Transformational leadership places a heavy emphasis on the mobilization of support through the leader's capacity to inspire and to advance a personal vision.