By surveying the collective experience and expertise of a group of senior executives, John Varney discovers what characterises successful leadership and offers insights into areas of best practice

There is often a gulf between decision makers and the people who are in touch with the situation, so how can we engage people successfully in exploring complex issues to achieve better understanding and more effective action?

LogoVisual Thinking makes group processes richer and more creative very quickly and has been used successfully from boardroom to classroom, to address both technical and social issues across all sectors. The Centre for Innovation in Health Management at Leeds University used this process to survey effective public sector leadership for the Northern Leadership Academy. The results can be summarised as:

  • start from "what is";

  • make the most of multiple perspectives;

  • create feedback;

  • inquire together.

More than 50 senior executives worked in nine sub-groups to generate responses to the question: "What makes for successful leadership in the public sector?" The thinking process engaged participants in merging their collective experience and expertise. The process began with everyone noting their ideas on magnetic hexagons, which they then organised into clusters. The titles of clusters were then distilled to a single picture and formed into a ring. The ring is a sequence or "story" of an ideal result, which strings the elements together as a whole. If your story is coherent, then your understanding becomes more holistic.

Our story

This process made it apparent that health leadership begins by acknowledging that our reason to exist lies in the practical job to be done and in achieving systematic results. This context invites us to adopt and live in a leadership role, modelling our behaviour to reflect the habits we feel contribute to success. As we do so, we can begin to engage those around us, connecting them to the whole system and its purpose. We can engage individual intent by allowing each person to see the ideal outcome.

This brings people into a constructive relationship so their diversity of perspective, expertise and experience enriches what they are about. Clear, shared values serve to moderate this collaborative behaviour. With care, an aspirational culture can be developed as people feel they are valued and show respect for one another. Mutual respect and shared aims provide the foundations for effective teams to be built.

Fundamental to the emergence of a living organisation is that the culture sustains learning, because learning depends upon feedback, risks can be taken and errors embraced. Leadership encourages people to be bold and entrepreneurial, confident that external relationships and perceptions will be managed effectively. As systematic outputs improve, the whole organisation begins to develop in a sustainable way, allowing success to breed success.

Ring composition

In a ring composition, maximum tension is experienced at the mid-point. In our case, bringing about the emergence of an aspirational culture will be challenging. Only by persistently modelling courageous entrepreneurial intent and consistent values-led behaviour will it be possible to change things for the better.

External relationships will mirror systematic outputs (or at least they cannot be seen to be successful without them). Being an exemplary role model demands courage and entrepreneurialism and a learning culture requires a clear vision of ideal performance. Conversely, the ideal cannot be achieved unless people are willing to learn - we are not yet what we need to be in order to deliver what we aspire towards. In close-knit teams, our diverse abilities are merged for the greater good. We can demonstrate individuals are valued through explicit values.

When the dynamism of all these pairs is operating we will have an aspirational culture - but in the sequence of events we can expect that getting past midway will be a major challenge to everything we are attempting. Out of the story people can begin to see things they might do. However, more importantly, actually embracing the ideal they have described for themselves changes who they are and what they stand for. This is the reason for engaging people in inventing their future in processes such as the one described here. If they choose to believe in the future they describe, then it is very likely to happen.