Leadership matters – now more than ever

LeadershipIn the 18 months between the second quarter of 2008 and the fourth quarter of 2009, UK GDP fell nearly five per cent. Six months later, at the end of the second quarter of 2010, the economy had regained a little of that loss, but was still three per cent down from its high point. What this downturn meant in real terms was that hundreds of thousands people had lost their jobs, a lot of businesses went broke and many families lost their homes. At the same time, employment in the NHS rose; between June 2008 and June 2009, some 61,000 more people were added to the payroll. One of the main factors preventing unemployment from falling even more precipitately was the growth in public sector employment.

Prepare to survive
Of course, this won’t last. Although health service funding is supposed to be protected, there will be enormous structural changes taking place and different patterns of funding allocation will have an impact on the many organisations which comprise the NHS. Jobs are already being lost and uncertainty is increasing as the government’s spending review reaches its conclusion. So what role does leadership play in all this?

Last year, the Institute of Leadership & Management undertook its first survey into leadership trust (The Index of Leadership Trust 2009). This summer we repeated the survey, and are in a position to report on the impact that the recession has had on leadership trust, and show how strong, effective leadership during this difficult time has enabled some organisations to survive and prepare for the future. Conversely, weak leadership has meant that some organisations are poorly prepared and will pay the price as the economy slowly grows. NHS managers can learn from the experience of private sector managers as they cope with the pressures that they will
undoubtedly face.

Leadership is about followership – the willingness of people to follow their leader, no matter how uncertain the outcomes are. In fact, when times are hard and the risks are great, the strength of an organisation’s leadership may be all that enables it to survive, as it harnesses the skills and commitment of the people who work for it.
Leadership at all levels
Leadership is needed at all levels in the management structure – from team leaders to chief executives. This is sometimes described as ‘distributed leadership’. What it means in practice is that the organisation recognises that managers who rely on their position to get people to do things will only get minimal support – employees will do what they are contracted to, and no more. Leaders who use their personal power to motivate and inspire people get higher levels engagement and performance, and this is just as important for team leaders and first line managers as it is for the chief executive.

The ability to engage people was described by the MacLeod Review (Engaging for success by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke) as the key to creating by high performance workplaces, but it requires strong, effective leadership at all levels if it is to be achieved, especially in the troubled times we now face right across the public sector. The commitment to the organisation that results form engagement is voluntary – people choose to give that extra, because of the leader. What’s more, when times are hard and risks are high, it’s even more important for them to trust their leaders if they are to follow them into the unknown.

The recession provides a real live case study to illustrate this. Many private sector companies had to contract last year. Some did it by shedding staff and closing premises. Others looked for creative ways to respond. They dropped to four day weeks, they asked for everyone to take pay reductions, and they encouraged people to switch to part-time or flexible working. In those companies that reduced the number of employees, trust in their managers fell; where they kept employment numbers up but reduced the amount of working, trust levels rose.

Many senior managers led the way. Some took 20 per cent pay cuts and asked their employees for 10 per cent. When the working (and paid for) week was cut to four days, many senior managers cut their salaries as well but continued working five days. Leadership is not about words, it’s also about actions, and effective leadership demands a set of positive behaviours not rhetoric. People judge their leaders by their perceived ability (how well they do their job), their personal integrity, their fairness and openness to others’ ideas, their consistency and their understanding of others’ roles. These are qualities that can’t be faked, and require time and effort before the effects are felt.

The three dimensions of effective leadership
At ILM we talk about a triadic model of leadership, a model that has three dimensions – knowing, doing and being. Knowing is the easiest bit to acquire – there are plenty of books, training programmes and conferences about leadership, so it’s not hard to learn about it. An understanding of leadership – what it is, why people respond to effective leadership, and the behaviours that encourage people to follow a leader – is essential for any manager keen to be an effective leader.

Doing is a lot harder. Popular science writer Malcolm Gladwell (drawing on the work of cognitive psychologist K. Anders Ericsson) has suggested that true mastery of a role requires 10,000 hours of practice. That’s the difference between an Olympic sportsperson, Nobel scientist or great musician and the rest of us – we don’t practice enough! Leadership isn’t easy. Putting into practice what has been learnt about effective leadership requires practice and the willingness to question behaviours that you have spent a lifetime developing. What makes people effective leaders is that they think about the effect that their behaviour is having on others, are prepared to change what they do and how they do it, and see the responses of others as the measure of success in their endeavours.

Seizing the opportunity
Many of the people who reach the top of organisations started on the road to leadership very early on, at school, at the sport club or in the scouts or guides. Their first steps on the leadership ladder may have been pure chance, but those who seized the opportunity had the chance to learn and develop, giving them a head start in the workplace. Those who missed out at an early age need to catch up by working hard on developing their
leadership behaviours.

If doing is hard, being is even harder. Being is about your values, attitudes and beliefs. It is what defines your relationship with the world, the way that your life so far has shaped who you are. Being mediates your knowledge and your behaviour – you use your values, attitudes and beliefs to shape your understanding of others and your responses to situations you face. Your values tell you what is important, and in the health service they will often have led you to work there. Your attitudes shape how you perceive the world and interpret experiences. Your beliefs help you explain your own and others’ behaviour.

Effective leaders have an insight into their own and others’ values, attitudes and beliefs and use that to adjust their behaviour to ensure that they have the desired effect, that they “do the right thing”, as Peter Drucker described it. Poor leaders allow their values, attitudes and beliefs to control their responses unwittingly, and fail to recognise what others value and believe in and how they see the world.

Creating trust

Trust is created by leaders who work on all three of these dimensions. Effective leaders know about their own job’s demands, and work hard to meet them. They also understand the demands of other people’s job roles and do what they can to help people meet those demands. They behave consistently, allowing people to see that they adhere to the principles and practices that they advocate (without doing so slavishly), and they welcome other people’s ideas.

Strong, effective leaders treat people fairly and show personal integrity in decision-making, even when their decisions may make them unpopular. It is through these behaviours that they become trusted and through that trust they can lead people through whatever challenges the world throws at them.

Effective leadership capacity

The NHS needs effective leadership. It always has done so, but with the uncertainties of the next few years, it has never been more important. Leadership starts at the top and chief executives with poor leadership abilities will inhibit the development of leadership at other levels. On the other hand, good role models encourage others to develop their own leadership effectiveness.

Developing strong, effective leaders isn’t about expensive training programmes. Training helps, but the development of appropriate leadership behaviours is more likely to happen if there are internal development and support systems to help translate knowing into doing. Line manager coaching, peer mentoring, action learning sets and similar techniques may require a commitment of time, but are an investment that can pay off quickly in improved performance.

Weak leadership needs to be challenged. Often it is the result of inadequate training coupled with poor support. Many people move into management positions reluctantly, as the only way to further their careers, and this lack of motivation doesn’t help build strong leadership qualities. An organisation that tolerates weak leadership is a weak organisation, and accountability for allowing this to happen lies squarely at the top. Senior managers must be prepared to help those they supervise when they need it, but they must also take action when they have given help but it has been refused or it has failed to change the poor behaviour.

Most importantly of all, leaders at all levels must be ready to look for innovative ways of enabling their organisations to get through the next few months and years. Strong, effective leadership is about challenging accepted ways of doing things, identifying novel approaches that are best of the patients and service users, and enabling the changes required to put them into practice.

David Pardey is senior manager of research & policy at the Institute of Leadership & Management.

For more information
Web: www.i-l-m.com

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