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It was beastly at the national management training scheme conference where they couldn't stop talking about elephants. Laura Donnelly suffered with the best of them

Are you: a) a honey bee; b) an elephant; or c) too old to be inspired by the lavish use of extended metaphors?

The right answer - if you're a modern health service manager - is 'a', NHS chief executive Sir Alan Langlands told the national management training scheme conference, where pockets of cynicism were few and far between.

He urged senior managers of the future to 'be less like elephants and more like honey bees', and compared the 'loud trumpeting' of elephants to the more sophisticated methods of communication used by honey bees. 'Elephants are very good at wading through mud but sometimes they get bogged down in it,' he added.

In a lengthy explanation, Sir Alan listed the characteristics of elephants (long gestation periods, thick skins and lack of teeth, to name but a few), concluding that they were no role model for young thrusting managers.

'As a metaphor for modern healthcare systems, I suggest to you that the honey bee works better.'

Sophisticated communications systems and networks used by bees living in huge colonies were likened to a modern NHS in which managers worked to create partnerships and develop innovation, diversity and local creativity.

'We can't afford to be slow, lumbering organisations slow to dance to the tune of the people we are trying to serve.'

Sir Alan told trainees that elephants could not manage 'the balancing act between equity, efficiency and responsiveness'.

His enthusiastic audience seemed happy with the prospect of a life spent mimicking bees.

The previous afternoon, Julian le Grand, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, suggested chess was the game for aspiring managers as he explored the factors which drive motivation. He said the question of whether to appeal to 'the knight or the knave' as a motivating force for staff had never been fully addressed.

The internal market's attempt to appeal to self-interest had 'never succeeded and never failed - because it was never tried', he said, adding that 'incentives were too weak and constraints too strong' for the market to perform properly.

But he gave a cautious welcome to the government's reforms as 'a clever way of aligning' altruistic and self-interested motivations.

Professor le Grand said the government was 'either being very clever or very confused' in adopting a 'fuzzy incentive structure to appeal to both the knight and the knave'. But he added: 'It just might work.'

By the time Ken Jarrold, chief executive of County Durham health authority, hit the floor, delegates were thirsting for the views of a real manager. Mr Jarrold did not disappoint.

He gave a candid account of a 'personal crucifixion' - a four-hour grilling by the Commons public accounts committee - followed by an incident of 'spectacular' illness in a train lavatory.

Delegates gasped as Mr Jarrold outlined the sorry tale of the regional information services plan for Wessex - a vision of 'a living network of data' he inherited, which had been racked by conflicts of interests and overspending.

He urged managers of the future to 'beware of visions' and ensure innovations had 'rigorous project management' as well as local ownership and clinical support.

'Listen to the people in the NHS. They are full of wisdom - they can see the realities. There is a terrible drive to be proactive and macho and all that crap,' he said.

Referring to his decision to pull the plug on RISP - 'not the message the Department of Health wanted to hear' - Mr Jarrold spelled out the need for courage in management.

'It is very easy for managers at any point in their career - but especially when they are young - to give people the answer they want.'

Mr Jarrold added: 'I don't think clinical governance is likely to take away the difficulties of confronting clinical performance. You will need courage to confront the situation.'

He argued that 'creating a breathing organisation in which people feel able to raise concerns' was the key to improving performance. 'Power is seductive. As you become senior you will be tempted to stop listening - to seal off messages you don't want to hear.'

But when tackled directly about whistleblowing, Mr Jarrold was pragmatic. 'I don't think you should place your career at risk when you are at a very uncertain place in your career,' he said.

Advising managers to tackle concerns about poor performance by bringing them to the attention of the medical director, he said: 'That is where your responsibility ends.'

And he warned: 'Be careful not to be too much of the white knight on a charger.'

The questioner had also asked for advice on how to handle issues such as staff receiving free prescriptions and senior staff 'skipping waiting lists'.

'There are times when the NHS does look after its own. There aren't many perks for working in the NHS,' said Mr Jarrold.

'I think it is perfectly natural and appropriate that at times the NHS does pay particular attention to the health needs of someone working in the NHS.

'Be careful what you describe as corruption - that it isn't just the NHS looking after its own.'