Seren Trewavas: What can we learn from the NHS when it comes to leadership

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nhsThe NHS has seen yet another major scandal with the alleged cover-up at a hospital in Cumbria. The bosses of the Care Quality Commission are accused of suppressing a report on failings in the maternity unit, and MPs will be questioning senior figures over the incident. What’s interesting about this though is that David Prior, the new chairman of the Care Quality Commission, has speculated that it’s the failure in leadership that’s the real problem.

Prior recently spoke on the topic of leadership in the NHS on Radio 4 programme, PM. Here, he referred to the situation using the expression of a fish rotting from the head down, indicating that when an organisation fails, it’s the leadership that is the root cause.

So what is it that Prior’s actually suggesting is wrong with the leadership? Is he advocating a return to heroic leadership – the idea that one person is the strong hand overseeing everything – or was it this approach that failed? Perhaps the cover-up is an example of heroic leadership gone wrong, but was it the collaborative and open minded approach in the first instance that caused the problems because there was no one running the Commission effectively?

There’s no doubt that it’s a complex topic. And perhaps it’s time to answer some of these questions about what really makes for effective leadership.

At a&dc, for instance, we’ve created a dynamic model of leadership effectiveness that moves away from the ‘one size fits all’ theories. Our model highlights the role of context in determining what effective leadership is, and puts an emphasis on experiential learning as a critical component of developing leaders. There are five elements of effective leadership which form our LIVED model. The ‘L’ stands for Learning agility, which refers to the willingness and ability to adapt to new environments and challenges by drawing on learning and feedback from previous experiences. Intellect is the second letter in the model – the ability to deal effectively with complex and ambiguous information, seeing issues in the broader context and taking sound decisions based on this analysis. Then there’s Values, which is acting in an authentic and consistent way, inspiring trust and demonstrating integrity, courage and respect for others. The ‘E’ is for Emotion, which is the ability to manage own emotions effectively, building positive relationships and using emotions to influence and inspire others. And, finally, we have Drive, which is setting challenging goals, taking an action-oriented approach and showing passion and determination to overcome obstacles, acting decisively and achieving results.

Identifying what effective leadership is within each of these areas, given the challenges the organisation faces, is the first step. Then current leadership needs to be benchmarked against this and development planned to bridge the gap. As such, to ensure that organisations have individuals with the right qualities and behaviours for the future, they need to start planning in the present. It’s important to be prepared now and look at the wider picture so that a company can have the right people in the right roles to tackle any long-term challenges. There needs to be a sustainable talent pipeline in place. And, to do this, HR teams need to look at identifying high potentials – those individuals who display the skills and capability to progress to senior levels – and putting a succession plan in place.

As Prior made clear, there’s no doubt that poor leadership trickles down to staff and then consequently to customers or users. In an organisation such as the NHS, this is clearly particularly worrying because lives are at risk. But, it’s important for all companies in terms of productivity and gaining competitive advantage. It’s worth taking the time to ensure you have the best possible talent in your senior roles.

About Seren Trewavas

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