Professional development gurus have identified all the pitfalls for aspiring great leaders and put them into a book. Stuart Shepherd reports
No doubt several NHS managers count themselves among the 15 million or so souls in possession of a copy of Stephen R Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Many will have tried to find inspiration in its pages. Some may even looked to the lives of the greats like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King for lessons.

Waste of time, says London Business School executive education programme director Steven Sonsino. The best thing, he argues in the book he wrote with Jacqueline Moore, The Seven Failings of Really Useless Leaders, is to find out what you are doing that gets in the way of being more inspirational yourself.

What Steven hears a lot of his public sector managers saying – they currently make up about a third of his client group and their interest seems to be growing – is that their organisations need to behave more like a business.

‘Why do this,’ he says, making a point elaborated in his presentation at this year’s NHS Employers conference, ‘when most businesses, like much in life, are mediocre. It may have something to do with the myth of metrics, which frankly annoys me.’

He says: ‘Great organisations deliver superior performance and make a distinctive impact over a long period of time. Surely in the public sector the critical question is not how much do we make for every pound of capital invested but how effectively do we deliver on our mission relative to our resources?’

Managers from across all sectors are persistently doing things that stop them being motivational – like killing emotion in the workplace. Better they found out what people talk about around the drinks station, how they are feeling and how they came across as leaders rather than – unreasonably– expect employees to leave all their troubles at home.

‘One of the seven failings that seems to resonate the most with health service managers is that poor leaders kill enthusiasm,' says Steven. People are motivated not by money but by challenging and rewarding jobs with a sense of purpose. Too many managers, however, find great people and train the heck out of them.’

Ultimately, as Steven sees it, we are all managers. Leadership has nothing to do with our place in the hierarchy but is a feature of how we behave towards others. Even those responsible for the supervision of the smallest teams within a health trust should be thinking about what they can do to bring good people in before watching how they flourish, standing back rather than standing over them.

‘The failure of most managers, however,’ notes Steven ‘is that instead of letting them get on with the job they gave them they micro-manage them to within an inch of their lives.’

Much goes into the conditioning of managers – not just training and early professional experiences but also parenting and school – and it is a lot to unravel. The kind of change that Seven Failings advocates is hard but then leading people is perhaps the most complex and personal challenge an individual can come up against.

‘I hope to be able to shift people's point of view,’ says Steven, ‘so that they first spend time thinking about it and then realise they have a responsibility to be leaders of people rather than just managers of resources.’

‘While it is a horrible question,’ he continues, ‘I do ask managers if they see their staff as humans or resources, their team as pairs of hands to get done what they want done or people who have a contribution to make.’

The NHS Employers conference and exhibition is taking place 9-11 October at the ICC Birmingham.