NHS leaders are resilient and intellectually capable but suffer from over-confidence and a “gung-ho” attitude, Department of Health research has found.

Assessments of the 800 managers on the DH’s Top Leaders programme found they performed significantly better on average than their private sector counterparts on verbal reasoning and slightly better on numerical reasoning tests.

They were also very resilient and good at strategic thinking.

But three quarters were creating a “demotivating culture”, according to Lubna Haq, associate director of the Hay Group, which carried out the research.

Presenting the findings to the NHS Confederation conference on Wednesday afternoon, Ms Haq said most of the NHS “top leaders” had a similar leadership style involving “rolling their sleeves up” rather than delegating.

While this ensured things got done, it also meant leaders were not always listening or engaging with colleagues, she said.

“People were quite strong minded and focused on getting the job done but not necessarily taking other people with them,” she said.

She added: “You’d think that 10 years of a target driven [culture] would have resulted in a particular style of leadership and that’s exactly what we’ve found. What’s important is that isn’t the kind of leadership that’s going to deliver the results now or in the future.”

NHS top leaders were more likely than average to be “overly confident of their abilities…not necessarily understanding what their limitations were,” she said. Some were “a bit gung-ho”.

They also scored relatively poorly at “entrepreneurial leadership”, “influence” and “partnership working”.

The results conveyed “quite a startling message,” Ms Haq said.

The results showed little variation across sectors, gender and whether people worked in foundation trusts or not.

NHS Top Leaders director Karen Lynas said: “We have a community of leaders who have led a significant renaissance in the NHS over the last 10 years.

“…That doesn’t address the issue that going forward we will have to operate in a very different way. The challenges we face cannot be resolved by working ever faster and dragging people along behind us.”

The findings have been presented to the NHS Management Board and will inform the NHS Commissioning Board’s “systems and processes”, she said.

A separate assessment of GP pathfinders found they were more likely than the “top leaders” to use a “visionary” leadership style and encourage participation from others.

The DH today this week launched its Leadership Academy, aimed at boosting clinicians’ management skills.

Health secretary Andrew Lansley said at the launch on Tuesday: “The job of managers and clinicians will change and grow, but you will not be alone.  For while the centre will no longer dictate, it will support.  And that goes especially for leadership.”

The academy would set national standards for leadership development, prepare “aspiring leaders” and “challenge poor or inappropriate leadership behaviour wherever it finds it,” he said.