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Public Leadership as robust collaborative action

Set in the context of collaborative public sector leadership, this project explores robust action, which attends to short-term objectives while also retaining long-term flexibilities.

Number of places



Home fee, International fee, Stipend


10 January 2018


31 March 2018


36 months


 Candidates are required to have:

  • An excellent undergraduate degree with Honours in a relevant business, technological or social science subject
  • A Masters degree (or equivalent) will be strongly preferred
  • Students may also have other relevant experience or skills which are relevant to this project
  • Candidates who are not native English speakers will be required to provide evidence for their English skills (such as by IELTS or similar tests that are approved by UKVI, or a degree completed in an English speaking country).

Project Details

In the complex terrain of today’s public leadership, conventional leadership theories are found to be seriously deficient. By focussing on the ‘individual leader’ these theories grossly over-simplify leadership situations firstly by failing to engage with the power dynamics that inevitably permeate every organizational situation, and secondly by overlooking the continuously changing landscape within which leadership is played out (Barker, 2001). Similarly, conventional research methods used in many leadership studies are limited in their capacity to engage with the participative and performative unfolding of leadership in practice. These deficiencies in theory and research methods are particularly acute in the public service, which is charged with providing leadership for incredibly complex situations that span disciplines and agencies, and are characterised by continuously fluxing objectives and global trends.

This project aims to contribute new theory and a new methodology for collaborative leadership understood in terms of ongoing social practice. It adopts a processual perspective on leadership that draws attention to the dialogical and improvisational movements of leadership practice (Raelin, 2016). In particular, the proposed research will engage with the concept of ‘robust action’, which was originally articulated by Leifer (1991) as a strategy that accomplishes short-term objectives while at the same time preserving long-term flexibilities. This capacity to move in the absence of certainty is highly relevant to understanding collaborative leadership in the context of the grand and seemingly intractable challenges regularly encountered in the public service. Ferraro, Etzion, and Gehman (2015) have extended the contemporary theorization of ‘robust action’ by emphasising the creativity that resides in all collaborative action.

The empirical phase of this project will be situated in various government and public sector organisations in Scotland. Sites will be chosen that can offer opportunities for co-designing and co-hosting of events intended to open up public leadership practice to closer theoretical and practical scrutiny. The researcher will act as a participant observer gathering insight into robust action through direct participative engagement in leadership situations. This project will generate immediate impacts on public leadership by closely integrating theory and practice. In addition, the field of leadership-as-practice is new and vibrant, so it offers clear opportunities to publish innovative research that makes novel contributions to theory and/or methodology.

Beyond the formal researcher training requirements at Strathclyde Business School, the studentship recipient will also be invited to join the Facilitation Network that has recently been established in Glasgow by Scottish Government. This provides a forum to explore and develop tools for participative inquiry as well as a network that will be useful as the work proceeds. In addition, the researcher will be encouraged to undertake specific training in Appreciative Inquiry and Theory U facilitation. The recipient will also be offered opportunities to co-author with supervisors and to attend relevant international conferences.

Funding Details

Fee waiver at Home/EU rate and annual stipend approx £14,553.

Further information

Useful readings:

Barker, R. A. (2001). The nature of leadership. Human Relations, 54(4), 469-494.

Ferraro, F., Etzion, D., & Gehman, J. (2015). Tackling grand challenges pragmatically: Robust action revisited. Organization Studies, 36(3), 363-390.

Leifer, E. M. (1991). Actors as observers: A theory of skill in social relationships. New York, NY: Garland.

Raelin, J.A. (2016) (Ed.) Leadership-as-practice: Theory and application. New York and London: Routledge.

How to apply

At this stage, we are inviting applicants to apply for the scholarship only. The successful candidate will then be asked to complete an application for PhD study at Strathclyde.

All applications should include:

  • a cover letter indicating the candidate's relevant skills/experience and how they can contribute to this research
  • a CV and relevant qualification transcripts
  • two references (please refer to guidance on references)

When sending the above documents please use the following file-naming convention: fullname_typeofdocument

  • Johnsmith_coverletter
  • Johnsmith_CV
  • Johnsmith_transcript1
  • Johnsmith_transcript2
  • Johnsmith_reference1
  • Johnsmith_reference2

Apply now by uploading your documents

NB Whilst this scholarship application deadline is 28th February 2018, candidates will be considered on receipt of application. The scholarship award may be allocated before the deadline (at the discretion of the supervisor), so please ensure early submission to avoid disappointment.