We can all articulate what we consider to be the essential characteristics of exemplary leaders; I am sure there would be some variation but I am equally sure that the similarities would be considerable. Over the years I have been party to many discussions and definitions of leadership; all are contestable and many depend on which perspective you are coming from.
It has been said (by Peter Hawkins) that after sex and gardening the next best-selling genre in books are on leadership. I have no idea whether this is true or not and whilst my intention is not to undervalue or be disparaging in any way of books on this subject, there is something much more powerful than reading a book and that is observing great leadership in action.
I have had the privilege this year of visiting a large number of trusts; I have met and worked with different teams and as you would expect have seen many different leadership styles. I have been immensely fortunate to have had this opportunity; I have observed and learnt so much.
This year has reinforced for me the fundamental importance of effective leadership. With effective leadership (at ward, department, division or trust level), significant improvements are achieved in the quality of care that patients receive alongside improved efficiency. This might sound very simplistic but it is important to remember the basics; our actions or lack of actions have a significant effect on service delivery. It is very interesting to observe how people differ in their leadership styles and it is startling to observe the difference in the level of quality, improvement and efficiency that can be achieved. This should not be underestimated.
The NHS needs to deliver quality services but at value. When entire teams are engaged the improvements in relatively short periods of time can be phenomenal. What is needed to achieve this? Effective leadership that sets clear but challenging goals, inspires enthusiasm, generates energy with a desire for wanting to improve, rallies teams to ensure they are kept motivated and fosters an environment where morale is high and one which is can do rather than can’t do.
It seems to me that successful leaders have a sincerity of approach; articulate their values, are believably genuine, show humility, listen, set stretching goals yet balance this with support for their teams.
I have been fortunate in recent weeks to meet and be inspired by two people; one a senior clinician and one a senior manager. What do they have in common? Both are passionate, driven to improve the care that patients receive, stand up for what they believe in even if people find it unpalatable and unacceptable at times, set high standards, don’t go with the flow unless the flow is the best place to be for quality and safety, could be perceived as being tough yet will step in to support teams when needed and both are what I would describe as ‘no airs or graces leaders’.
Let me finish with a quote which resonates with me because it sums up what I have observed. Binney, Wilke and Williams in Leaders in transition: The dramas of ordinary heroes, 2003; ‘valued leadership does not come from extraordinary people but from ordinary folk who remember what they know, recover their wits amidst the pressure of transitions and deal with what is immediate and present. It consists of doing ordinary things like connecting people, valuing them, protecting people from pressures above and around ……instead of trying to live up to some idealised picture of what leaders are, they make the best use of what’s in front of them. They become ordinary heroes’.
Remember that there is no magic bullet.