Simon Potts on how to develop potential leaders by growing staff operating at a local level to have a broader system based perspective and ownership

It’s no surprise that once again the top 30 most influential leaders are in full time national roles with the exception being Dame Julie Moore. Is it inevitable that national leaders will continue to dominate this leaders’ table in future?

Veredus logo

Developing national policy can be very challenging, especially if it is to be effective and implemented successfully. It is the success around the implementation that makes the policy work and for that part it is “down to the locals”.

The idea that the current care system can conform to a model of leadership based on a single organisation with its hierarchy and traditions is unrealistic and frankly unsustainable

At a local level, innovation and joined up system leadership is what makes things happen and makes things work. Jeremy Hunt recognised this (in a roundabout way) when announcing the recent Sustainability and Transformation Partnership Capital Investment fund, “A measure of success of these transformational partnerships is that people can see and feel improvements being made in their local area”.

It’s not just money making this happen; it is the local innovation and system leadership.

In the early days “system leaders” did not always immediately see themselves as such. Essentially, alongside doing their day job, they had to work across organisational boundaries to enable change to take place in order to achieve a high level of synergy across care systems that may or may not sit within their obvious remit, or sphere of influence.

The “make it so” style of leadership simply didn’t work for some, for others a more naturally engaging and collaborative style underpinned by open, transparent actions and clear personal values role modelling behaviours that staff and organisations can live and breathe, has.

We know that the external health and care landscape is vast, comprising a wide range of commercial, not-for-profit and charitable organisations and each of these has a complex web of people, cultures and sub structures, which takes some navigating! The idea that the current care system can conform to a model of leadership based on a single organisation with its hierarchy and traditions is unrealistic and frankly unsustainable.

The need for change

Change needs to be implemented, but change stands a greater chance of “sticking” if it is being achieved through the application of “soft” power, rather than the ego centric hierarchical styles of leadership associated with more traditional organisational models.

A systems approach places greater emphasis on collaboratively creating a shared vision of what is important and what the ultimate outcomes should look like

It is perhaps, therefore, more important than ever to pursue the stability of leadership that is service and citizen focused, rather than ego or organisationally focused. So what does this mean for the individual who is seen as the system leader and what does it mean for those with the responsibility for hiring them?

System leadership may be characterised by the need to be collaborative and the need to have the confidence to be able to cross boundaries – organisational, geographical, professional and virtual. As such, the system leader’s reach is extended far beyond the traditional limits of their responsibility and authority.

Given the risks associated with hiring an effective system leader, it is perhaps more important than ever to focus more on the softer skills associated with leadership and the particular mindset required when assessing a person’s suitability for a role, more so than traditionally has been the case.

As a headhunter working at board level, I talk to chairs and CEOs; their candidate specifications are blue printed and frequently carbon copied with a sprinkling of “system leadership qualities and experience” here and there. The problem is that it means different things to different audiences and how do we actually test these behaviours out?

When assessing a candidate, a potential system leader, a good starting point is to examine the following:

  • Their core values: can they communicate an inspiring shared vision and purpose and are they prepared to take risks in order to defend a shared vision and purpose?
  • Can they work with information? Where do they garner information from and can they evaluate and prioritise it effectively in order to identify fresh ways of working?
  • Their cognitive agility: can they analyse information and communicate it in such a way as to build credibility and trust. Will they use information appropriately to monitor and manage performance?
  • How do they prefer to relate to others? Can they connect with and develop positive working relationships with a broad range of stakeholders? Are they able to adapt to different expectations and standards outside of their own organisation? Are they able to effectively influence and persuade others to be results focused whilst developing enhanced collaboration and consensus?
  • Can they handle the politics? How do they keep their population in mind and help keep people true to this? How do they protect against low grade sabotage, where people misuse their power in pursuit of their own ends rather than the needs of the population? How do they persuade and influence more traditionally minded executives and non executives who have grown up in a system developed in a different time?
  • Do they build confidence and capability in others? Do they create systems that manage a talent pipeline in order to ensure succession and development happens effectively?

Whilst on the face of it, a systems approach to leadership may not look that different from traditional leadership models, arguably a systems approach places greater emphasis on collaboratively creating a shared vision of what is important and what the ultimate outcomes should look like.

In this regard it is perhaps very similar to what the military may refer to as “mission command”. The person in charge of the mission creates a shared vision and objective for all the complex interrelated assets at their disposal, but the individual commanders on the ground are empowered to decide how they achieve their specific responsibilities whilst also providing support to those around them.

In conclusion, as we can see from the leaders’ table, to operate in a national role requires proven system leadership skills. Unless we grow and develop staff operating at a local level to have a broader system based perspective and ownership, along with changing the ways we value, identify and assess these softer skills, the number of these emerging local system leaders will continue to be suppressed.

Therefore, perhaps in the immediate future, our leaders’ table may not change that dramatically, or will it? 

HSJ100 refresh: Briggs, Baker and Ashworth join the NHS’s power elite