NHS chief executive David Nicholson has pledged that managers will not risk their jobs if they experiment with new ways of delivering services.

Mr Nicholson said the health system would fail if it was “vindictive” towards managers.

Speaking to HSJ at the Healthcare Innovation Expo last Thursday, Mr Nicholson said: “It’s incumbent on people like me to create an umbrella for managers to give them the protection so if it does go wrong the service will support them.”

He agreed with an HSJ report last week that the NHS had not always looked for the right qualities in its leaders, such as the willingness to take risks.

In his 30-year career as an NHS manager Mr Nicholson had been given no support or development in relation to innovation “because it’s never been regarded by people who train managers in our system as being an important part of the job, it’s always been seen as something extra”.

Incompetent leaders should be fired, he said, but managers also needed the “flexibility to fail”, unless this compromised patient safety.

Trusts and commissioners will be asked to tell strategic health authorities whether they are fulfilling a new statutory duty to encourage innovation. The SHA assurance process will also consider whether this is happening, Mr Nicholson confirmed.