Co-production of research has been promoted, but raises many challenges for academic research, including how to balance between scientific methods and the normative values associated with co-production. Involving the public and other stakeholders can imply different purposes for undertaking research, and different perspectives on how to do it. Who leads, and how, can influence how these disputed issues of purpose, practice, and power, are handled. A gap has been identified on the ‘hidden politics’ of leadership in co-produced research. The Q-methodology study presented in this paper offered a means to interrogate the different perspectives on leadership in co-produced research. Through systematic, comparative and empirically-grounded analysis, we identified four distinct viewpoints on leadership in co-production, offering competing perspectives on the practice of leadership, how questions of power should be addressed and contrasting purposes, emphasizing: creativity, outcomes, vision or equality. In reflecting on their divergence, as well as points of commonality, we demonstrate the value of centring questions of otherwise ‘hidden’ politics in debates on co-production and leadership. Our research offers theoretical advance in understanding how leadership in co-production is contested, and practical utility in offering heuristics to help navigate the messy realities of co-production.