We introduce this thematic issue by exploring the role of leadership in social and political change. In current times, the importance of leadership and choice has proved as important as ever. Leadership is often the critical variable separating success or failure, legitimacy and sustainability or collapse. This thematic issue explores a range of in-depth case studies across the Asia-Pacific region that help illustrate the critical elements of leadership. Collectively they demonstrate that leadership is best understood as a collective process involving motivated agents overcoming barriers to cooperation to form coalitions that have enough power, legitimacy and influence to transform institutions. Five themes emerge from the thematic issue as a whole: leadership is political; the centrality of gender relations; the need for a more critical localism; scalar politics; and the importance of understanding informal processes of leadership and social change.