This paper considers the rise of ‘leadership’ in discourses relating to the British health service, and the application of the term to increasingly heterogeneous actors. Analysing interviews with NHS chief executives from the late 1990s, and key policy documents published since, we highlight how leadership has become a term of choice among policymakers, with positive cultural valences which previously predominant terms such as ‘management’ now lack. We note in particular how leadership is increasingly conferred not only on those in positions of formal power but on frontline clinicians, patients and even the public, and how not just the implementation but the design of policy is now constructed as being led by these groups. Such constructions of the distribution of power in the health service, however, contradict the picture drawn by academic work. We suggest, therefore, that part of the purpose of leadership discourse is to align the subjectivities of health-service stakeholders with policy intentions, making their implementation not just everyone’s responsibility, but part of everyone’s sense of self. Given the realities of organizational life for many of the subjects of leadership discourse, however, the extent to which leadership retains its current positive associations and ubiquity remains to be seen.Peer-reviewedPost-prin
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