The Health Service can often seem crazy. A new book offers ways out of the madness. By George Binney, Phil Glanfield and Gerhard Wilke
Do you ever feel bewildered or oppressed by what goes on in your organisation? Do some things strike you as “bonkers”? Chances are you are not alone. The Health Service can often seem crazy. Do you experience:
- Seemingly endless reorganisations – what we call permanent transition
- A preoccupation with box-ticking that drives out the real work
- Talk about transformational leadership but a reality of the same old problems
- Chief executives who call for leadership but act in ways that kill it
- IT that fosters new forms of bureaucracy, disconnection and fragmentation
- A mania for metrics that destroys trust and judgement
- The demand for “alignment” that means people are often afraid to say what they think.
We suggest that these things do not happen by accident. They are part of a pattern. They arise because of the current orthodoxy about leadership and management, change and strategy, a “heroic orthodoxy” which has taken hold over the past 40 years. The heroic orthodoxy originated in the business schools and management consultancies, rode the wave that “business knows best” and is now largely taken for granted. The orthodoxy centres on the idea that the job of leaders is to drive through transformational change. It is heroic in a number of ways. It requires heroic leaders with heroic visions of how the world should be and heroic resolve to drive change.
Despite good intentions, incessant top-down efforts at change have damaged the social fabric on which organisations depend for their success
There is glaring contradiction at the heart of the heroic orthodoxy. There is much talk of the need for transformational leadership. Yet the reality on the receiving end is managerial – a preoccupation with plans and targets, metrics and monitoring, form-filling and box-ticking. We live in a world of unintended consequences. Despite good intentions, incessant top-down efforts at change have damaged the social fabric – the relationships, processes and culture – on which organisations depend for their success.
A radical re-think
In our new book, Breaking Free of Bonkers – How to Lead in Today’s Crazy World of Organisation, we suggest it is time for a radical re-think: people need to be aware of the heroic orthodoxy that shapes so much of what happens in organisations – and then break free of it. There is a natural process by which organisations learn and adapt, which needs to be encouraged, not shut down. We need to restore the idea that leading is an ordinary social process we are all familiar with. Many can and should lead in different moments, not just a few at the top. We need to recover old insights. We are much more than rational, economic animals, to be manipulated by carrots and sticks. We are social beings shaped by history and culture and need to be heard, valued and respected if we are to give of our best.
liberating the collective intelligence of groups and organisations is more important than any one person’s contribution
There is hope. Many lead effectively, despite the orthodoxy. We tell their stories and offer their insights. We describe how they recognise that good management is essential but effective leadership comes first. They focus on connecting with the people around them and on purpose and meaning, not just on task. They focus on “We’” not “I”, recognising that liberating the collective intelligence of groups and organisations is more important than any one person’s contribution. They work with the grain of what they have. They see the potential in every situation and interaction to make a difference; they don’t postpone effective action to some glittering future that never arrives. They sustain the humanity of organisations and thereby make them more effective.
George Binney, Phil Glanfield and Gerhard Wilke are three experienced organisation consultants from the business school at Ashridge. Their previous books include Living Leadership – a Practical Guide for Ordinary Heroes, Leaning Into the Future and How to be a Good Enough GP