'I confess to not missing the grind of the job; 36 years is long enough for anyone. I also do not miss politicians who have a tendency to be personally abusive'

When I look back to previous secretaries of state for health I confess to a liking for Frank Dobson. I also liked Alan Milburn because he had vision and a clear sense of direction, something his successors would do well to reflect on. OK, his style was not to everyone's taste but he knew what he was doing, which is a major plus for any politician in my book.

But back to avuncular Frank, who I remember for a true funny story about Labour Party electioneering and because he once said the NHS needed to operate more like an airline. He was of course using the private sector to make a reasonable point about NHS consumer care. There have been many occasions when I have disagreed with Frank's view and I now realise that he and I probably would exchange heated words should we ever discuss this.

I have had many skirmishes with the private sector over standards of service and I'm tempted to discuss Sky TV, which suffers from not having a market competitor to keep its customer care service on its toes. However, I will continue with the airline theme. In today's increasingly commuter-based world, air travel is more of a tiresome necessity rather than a pleasurable experience.

Two recent incidents with British Airways (remember when it used to be the world's favourite airline - when was that?) coincided with reading how the new chief executive was saying his first year was going well. Except for my wife and I that is. On two occasions we fell foul of credit card booking, BA's computer system and the check-in staff not having authority to exercise judgement and override the system, which would have prevented the need to buy fresh tickets just so we could board a flight we had booked months before.

The little things that matter

All this reminds me that for customers dealing with organisations it is often the little things that irritate. It is rarely grand plans and strategies but day to day interactions that have a greater, often cumulative impact. And it doesn't matter whether the organisation is public or private.

Oh, and have BA replied to my letter of complaint sent several weeks ago? You know the answer to that.

Talking of politicians I have been reflecting in these early weeks of my new portfolio existence what I miss most about being a chief executive. It is mainly the social aspects such as work colleagues and such like. I confess to not missing the grind of the job; 36 years is long enough for anyone. I also do not miss politicians who have a tendency to be abusive. I was thinking about this recently when reading in the media that opinion surveys said how society is missing the good manners of yesteryear.

In my time in the NHS I dealt with a lot of strategic change, often in the face of political opposition. I managed to maintain a robust but civil relationship with nearly all the politicians I had dealings with, except the odd couple who insisted on being rude and personally abusive. I think this was from the belief that because they were elected and I wasn't, I did not care as much as they did about either their constituents or the local NHS. This of course is both naive and insulting to public service managers.

If there is one personal characteristic that politicians and NHS leaders should aspire to have in common, apart from good manners, it is humility. In leadership terms this means subsuming personal ego for the wider, greater good of the world around them. Easier said than done in some cases, I know.