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Following the leader towards future success

The recent Cabinet reshuffle, and subsequent change to the political leaders of NHS reform, offers us an opportunity to consider the pitfalls that can be associated with leadership and the necessary combination of skill, environment and followership that is needed to achieve success as a leader.

The recent Cabinet reshuffle, and subsequent change to the political leaders of NHS reform, offers us an opportunity to consider the pitfalls that can be associated with leadership and the necessary combination of skill, environment and followership that is needed to achieve success as a leader.

Leadership is, by definition, often considered to be a positive force and there is good understanding on the positive impacts, such as how good leadership can contribute to financial outcomes, organisational performance and the job satisfaction of staff. 

Recently, however, the leadership debate has focused more closely on the negative, or destructive, side of leadership, with a focus on understanding the factors that can contribute to an individual’s career derailment and the impact of this on an organisation or system. 

Destructive leadership refers to the aspects of a leader’s behaviour that can have a negative influence and research has shown that certain behavioural traits, or “dark side” characteristics, can lead to an individual’s career being plateaued or derailed in some way. 

This pattern of derailment is an important area to understand and one that should not be neglected in the current NHS climate. As one theorist aptly explained the concept: we would never train our doctors to focus solely on health without consideration for the treatment and management of disease.

As individuals we all have some element of “dark side” to our personality - character flaws that in some situations can lead to success but if left unchecked and unmanaged can have dire consequences for ourselves and those around us.

Leadership, however, does not exist in a vacuum. It consists of a complex interplay of an individual’s motivation and ability to lead, the followers’ desire and need for direction, and the event and context calling for leadership. Derailment often occurs when there is a mismatch between these factors.

This systems perspective of leadership derailment offers an interesting viewpoint when observing the recent changes in the leadership of the UK healthcare system, and in thinking about our leaders more broadly.

Are our leaders equipped with the behavioural skills and resources to manage their dark side traits so they do not have a wider negative influence? Is the environment in which they are leading one where destructive behaviour is tolerated and left unchecked? And is the culture of the organisation one where the followers do not have the ability, motivation or mechanisms for challenging the behaviour at the top?

The causes of career derailment can be mitigated and there are effective means of profiling and understanding an individual’s risk of derailment, which point to the areas where self-awareness and self-management are most needed. Further still, there are more rigorous techniques available for making sure you have the right person for the job in hand in the first place. These are important factors to consider as we move into a future where a new kind of leadership will be required to make change happen.

Mary-Clare Race is an associate at Arup.

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