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'The NHS needs strong leadership at all levels'

Skilled and confident leaders are vital in helping the NHS overcome the challenges it faces, writes Institute of Leadership and Management chief executive Charles Elvin.

Last year’s inaugural NHS Leadership and Management Summit launched the concept of “no more heroes”, a style of distributed leadership that promotes strong leadership at all levels and departs from the idea of the all-powerful chief executive.

This model of leadership is essential to the success of the NHS at a time of unprecedented challenges and organisational transition. The qualities that make a good leader – confidence, adaptability and the ability to motivate others – cannot be confined to those at the top, but should be present across all levels in the organisation, from those that manage the very smallest teams to those that are responsible for a number of teams.

In order to develop and improve as leaders, individuals must think of themselves as leaders and have the confidence to use and practice their leadership skills.

The focus of this year’s summit - leadership for engagement - builds on this concept of distributed leadership. The NHS is a vast, multi-faceted organisation with a great network of employees and stakeholders. It is vital that everyone within the organisation understands the goals they are working towards, and, just as importantly, feel motivated to do so.

Leaders within the NHS are ultimately responsible for this. With so many relationships to negotiate and maintain (patients, members of the public, staff, boards and partner organisations), it is necessary that there are people at every level, who are able to engage with and inspire the people they work alongside. It is also crucial that leaders have a clear vision of their goals and sets of values, and communicate these clearly to those around them.

In order to achieve this, leaders must be able to recognise themselves as such; one of the difficulties within the NHS is that people do not identify themselves as leaders or managers, but rather in terms of their professional capability. With the lack of awareness or the skills and confidence to assume a leadership role, engagement fails and organisational goals can prove to be difficult to achieve. 

An effective tool for developing leaders, and encouraging them to see themselves as such, is through coaching. Rather than simply advising or providing answers, coaching is a facilitative process that allows people to formulate their own ideas and solutions.

Coaching is one of the single most cost-effective development investments the NHS can make as this learning naturally spreads across the workplace. True coaching - by trained coaches - ensures staff work out their own solutions and approach, rather than being given a moment in time solution.

Building a coaching culture involves proactively equipping managers through training and development. Investing in formal coaching qualification will achieve this as well as helping to demonstrate the organisation’s commitment to coaching as an on-going management practise. Ultimately, it will help staff across the NHS work at their optimum level.

A shift in perceptions of leaders in the NHS is crucial and ties in to the “no more heroes” idea introduced at last year’s Leadership and Management Summit. This is not something that can happen over night. Leadership development is not a one-off, or even a short learning event, rather it needs to be embedded over time and is crucial to the long term, sustainable success of the NHS.

Find out more

Institute of Leadership & Management

Readers' comments (2)

  • Blair Mcpherson

    I am confused by your choice of head line which states the NHS needs strong leaders yet the article talks of no more heroes and a move away from the charismatic "strong" leader. The thrust of the article seems to be that leadership needs to be shown by a wide range of professional with in an organisation and at all levels not just the chief executive and that the style needs to be less autocratic more engaging. So perhaps "More leaders and more listening".

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • Leadership at all levels is twonk. Sorry let me correct that, leadership at any level is twonk.

    99% of a system's performance is down to the design of the work. When the work is well aligned with it's purpose the people can get on with it. Leadership is an irrelevant hangover from Judislamianity religious notions of societal mechanisms designed to manipulate the poor many to serve the rich few. Albeit with some amateur psychology like "coaching" and a spin full of trendy second-hand eloquence like "distributed leadership"!

    We now live in networks and understand how complex adaptive systems self regulate through feedback. Leadership is an irrelevant distraction, used as cognitive behavioural therapy for people who can't do the work.

    Leadership is a flimsy sugary glaze on top of a cherry, on a decoration, on a centrepiece, on the icing, on a stale old cake.

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