This article reviews the changes that have taken place in local government leadership in France and Spain. It has been argued that political leadership in local government in Southern Europe is characterized by major political leaders who are able to obtain resources from central government through their political connections. However, both French and Spanish local governments have evolved while developing new forms of leadership that are more connected to territory, its people and local issues than to the respective administrative capitals. The article argues that the development of new policies at the local level, the opening of new avenues of citizen participation and the introduction of new methods of public management have changed the relationship between elected representatives and the people. Institutional innovations at the supra‐municipal level have also created a space between regions and municipalities for local leaders to develop their capacity as project leaders and network creators.