New Public Leadership Mechanisms

Small changes can have a dramatic effect

“Mechanisms are ‘Triggers for Action’”

The term ‘mechanism’ is used in answer to ‘how’ questions. 

If the context is primarily focused on the core purpose (the ‘why?’ and the ‘what?’ questions – through its mission, goals and objectives), the mechanisms concern the ‘how?’ question. Strategic activities are taken in improving capability for organisational improvement through an organisational business model and supporting processes. Mechanisms will often support these. The alignment between context, mechanisms and outcomes and the strategic management process is drawn together at the end of this section of the portal. The process is described in more detail in the Knowledge and Practice Hub.

The approach to exploring mechanisms is research-based. Realists focus on mechanisms in ‘triggering action’. For the purposes of the underpinning research, leadership is considered as a form of intervention, which may affect target behaviour. Mechanisms can often be invisible.  For example, in relation to leadership, (Tilley, 2010: 636) refers to ‘inspiration’;

We cannot directly observe this inspiration, even if we may be able to observe the behaviours that may be activating the inspiration and the behaviours that are produced as a consequence of that inspiration!

As just one example, is ‘inspiration’ a mechanism?

In paraphrasing the OED online, the literal meaning of a mechanism is the interconnection of parts in any complex process or pattern.  Inspiration clearly cannot be considered in this way.  How will we identify it?  What will it look like? We do not know.  We can perhaps sense the outcome, but we cannot quantify it.

Following this OED literal analysis, to inspire is to influence or actuate by an agency (another person’s action).  Therefore, a positive reaction to a leadership activity is something inspired or infused by one into the mind of another. Inspiration is thus uttered or produced by the action of another.  For this reason, for public leadership, inspiration is an outcome of another’s behaviour (the ‘personal impact’ of the leader).  This inspiration occurs in different contexts (for example, the leader’s style) that uses a mechanism (a policy, process, pedagogical input or through problemitisation) to influence the person’s required action in different ways.  The ‘how’ will trigger (or influence) the results, thus reflecting the strapline for realists; ‘what works, how, in which conditions and for whom.’
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The 4Ps of Mechanisms

The four mechanisms that emerged from the research illustrated how they interact with the 11 contextual conditions, shown in figure 1.  At the conclusion of this section, we will demonstrate how this interaction and, more particularly, the dynamic interactions between the contexts led to the creation of more operational collective leadership values and behaviours model (based on COMPASS 360°values and behaviours).



The model aims to achieve the high-level outcomes that the vision and values seek to aspire towards.  The mechanisms act as ‘triggers’ (or influencers) to ‘fire’ particular actions aimed at achieving the outcomes within differing contextual conditions.

Exploring the chain of action

Of particular relevance to realistic evaluation is describing a mechanism as part of a kinematic chain.  In such a chain, one link is fixed or stationary whereas another link can be manipulated. The mechanisms act as ‘triggers’ to ‘fire’ particular actions that aim to achieve the outcomes within differing contextual conditions.  In this sense, one can consider the ‘fixed’ (or given) as the context with the mechanism representing the moving (non-given) actions. Such actions will include unconscious, structured sets of mental processes underlying a person’s behaviour and response.  So, it is the mechanism (tangible) that leads to unconscious and conscious actions within the practice of leadership.

In summary, this distinction between the ‘unobserved’ or ‘untouchable’ (i.e. inspiration) and the ‘observed’ or ‘touchable’ (i.e. behaviours) has been increasingly important as the collective leadership research and evaluation took place.  We can consider the ‘unobserved’ as leadership values and the ‘observed’ as leadership behaviours. This distinction will be discussed in more detail in the next session (Collective Leadership Model). The coupling of context and mechanism produces the third element of the configuration: the outcome.  Public value is a high-level outcome of collective leadership.  This suggests, quite rightly, that CMO configurations (context-mechanism-outcomes) are multi-level in much the same way as collective leadership is multi-level.

A brief outline of the four NPL mechanisms

Cogs illustrating the 4Ps of NPL mechanisms
The Four Ps that define the mechanisms of New Public Leadership

Within the earlier section on whole systems (Leadership3) the concepts of synergetics (considering the whole) and cybernetics (its constituent parts) were introduced.  Synergetics reflect context whereas cybernetics reveal mechanisms, but within context (the whole).  The combination of synergetics and cybernetics in defining the ‘whole’ of collective leadership is briefly discussed further at the conclusion of this section.  For the purposes of this topic, mechanisms refer specifically to what is done and how it is done. They focus on the behaviours and actions of individuals and the actions taken on behalf of organisations, thus representing both agency and structure.  Mechanisms are aimed at ensuring that the desired outcomes are achieved within the given contexts.

Now consider the role of the four Ps that define the collective leadership mechanisms. These are illustrated below in the accordion table.  Click on each accordion to reveal the brief description of each NPL mechanism.

The four mechanisms of New Public Leadership

The first of the mechanisms is that of policy. The provenance of the word dates from Middle English, derived from the Old French policie’ civil administration’, via Latin from Greek politeia ‘citizenship’, from politēs’ citizen’, from polis ‘city’.  One can thus view this from the collective perspective. In modern usage, it refers to a course or principle of action adopted or proposed. The policy mechanism is closely related to the overarching context of purpose and is how the purpose is put into effect.

Closely aligned to the ‘P’ of practice, policy often seeks to influence a particular pattern or a pattern of practice, and it is in this respect that strategy takes its place. The definition of practice relates to “the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it”. It can also describe the custom­ary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing of something, in the repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill to maintain proficiency in it.

Policy and practice may together rely on the extent to which problem-solving occurs, particu­larly in aligning practice with the contextual problem profiles that underpin the purpose of leadership, as described earlier.

Thus, the fourteenth ‘P’ defines problemitisation as that to “make into or regard as a problem requiring a solution”.  Concerning leadership and the role of leaders, we consider the distinction between critical, tame and wicked problems.   A ‘tame’ problem is one in which there is a ‘tried-and-tested solution, whereas a ‘wicked’ prob­lem does not

Practice, based on appropriate problemitisation and theory go together in defining and supporting relationships within networked environments.  If one does not inform the other, a complete cycle of leadership development cannot take place.  Invariably, these two ideas occupy attention in separate directions.

Learning and development most often take place in isolation from the workplace, and the day,-to-day challenges faced by leaders at all levels go untouched.  The most effective pedagogy represents a virtuous learning cycle, informing practice and practice informing research and more learning.


Beer, Stafford (1962) ‘Brain of the Firm: The Managerial Cybernetics of Organization’, Allen Lane.

Dalkin, S. M., Greenhalgh, J., Jones, D., Cunningham, B. & Lhussier, M. (2015) What’s in a mechanism? Development of a key concept in realist evaluation. Implementation Science, 10(1), 49

Pawson, Ray (2013). The science of evaluation : a realist manifesto. London, SAGE.

Pawson, R. & Tilley, N. (1997) Realistic evaluation. Los Angeles ; London: Sage.

Tilley, N. (2010) Can Leadership be Evaluated? In: Brookes, S. & Grint, K. (eds.) The Public Leadership Challenge. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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