'Mixing with Europeans always reminds me how European we are in the UK and how much less we have in common with the USA'

It's been a period of travel recently. First to Serbia to take part in the inaugural health services management conference of South East Europe.

There was much ceremony, including a reception at one of the former royal palaces - now restored to its former glory - hosted by the Crown Prince of Serbia Alexander II, who returned to his country in 2001 after the overthrow of former president Slobodan Milosevic.

This was an important event for Serbia, a country still overshadowed by politics because of the imminent outcome of a United Nations review on whether Kosovo should become an independent state. Since Kosovo is seen by many Serbs as their spiritual homeland, the general view was that the answer would be likely to please few. This reminded me that although we often deride governments, sometimes political decision-making can be much more difficult than we realise.

My own contribution to the conference focused on discussing the leadership styles of chief executives in the English NHS. With hindsight I wasn't sure what value I added even though the principles of leadership are pretty much the same the world over; it's generally only context and culture that are different.

However, my talk precipitated a debate about whether doctors or general managers made better hospital directors. This was important to delegates because it is only recently that the law has changed in Serbia to allow hospitals to be managed by non-doctors.

There was also an embryonic idea to establish a health service management centre for training and developing managers of the future. My hope is that the debate about professional background will have receded by the time it gets off the ground and moved on to the more important question of what personal skills the best leaders need.

Next it was off to Brussels to interview for a new director for the European Health Management Association. This was good for my personal development because mixing with colleagues from Europe always reminds me of how European we are in the UK and, consequently, how much less we have in common with the USA in terms of history and culture.

The association encourages collaboration on healthcare policy and related management issues. I believe we are stronger because of that and that we continue to have much to learn from each other. We can certainly learn a lot about choice and consumerism. Even humour translates well in our European meetings, sometimes even more so than with our US cousins.

Then it was off to Finland to talk about leadership at the University of Kuopio. Finland is interesting because the population is about the same as that of Scotland but the country is much, much bigger. I remember my last visit when my host told me that a paediatric unit some 50 kilometres distant from the town had been closed, partly because there were too many units for the size of population.

Consequentially, people had to travel further for specialist paediatric care. This would probably be unacceptable in the UK but in a place like Finland it's possible to travel great distances all day, often without seeing another vehicle. A bit different to the M25, so perhaps in the Finnish context travelling more than 50 kilometres for specialist healthcare is not so arduous.