This thesis explores the phenomenon of leadership by senior public servants in Westminster system governments. Despite the important constitutional position held by senior public servants (SPS), we know relatively little about what they do day-to-day – in particular what their ‘leadership’ looks like, or how and why it occurs. To address this gap in knowledge, I use an inductive lens to study individual SPS leadership practices in response to strategic challenges they face, and the sensemaking pathways that lead them to engage in those practices. My approach in this study draws upon a critical realist application of the Gioia Methodology, a systematic approach to the development of new concepts designed to bring qualitative rigour into the process and presentation of inductive research (Gioia, Corley, Kevin and Hamilton, 2013). I examine SPS leadership and sensemaking in two sites of Westminster system government – New Zealand and Wales – and draw upon qualitative interview data to forge narratives and a conceptual model to explain how SPS leadership is accomplished. The findings reveal that SPS are not neutral, impartial bureaucrats, but are individuals whose identities and preferences shape their leadership on strategic challenges. Their preferences can align them to their minister’s agenda (agenda leadership), or lead them to try to alter an agenda, by engaging in practices to reframe the challenge and/or proposed government response (steward leadership). The model maps two distinct sensemaking pathways underpinning agenda and steward –leadership respectively, revealing how key extrinsic and intrinsic factors combine to shape each. The model, and its component freshly-instantiated concepts, afford new empirical evidence to the debate on the appropriate role of SPS in Westminster system governments, which to date has been dominated by theoretical and normative contributions. Drawing upon this new evidence, I argue that both agenda leadership and steward leadership by SPS are demanded to supplement the bounded leadership of elected ministers; and recommend updating socialisation, scrutiny and accountability routines to recognise the reality of SPS as independent, human sensemakers and leaders in government.

Document Type


Publication Date