Being a decent senior leader

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Most of my blogs are aimed at everyone – all leaders regardless of seniority, experience or role.  That’s because I think most messages in the field of leadership are generic and useful to everyone from supervisor to board member, from accounts clerk to surgeon.

However, this blog is slightly different.  This blog is an appeal to those of us who climb high enough in organisations to qualify for the label ‘senior’.  We have responsibilities that others don’t carry – and we should be mindful of them and deploy them with sensitive aplomb.  I’m not talking about complex strategy and big budgeting, nor contingency planning and the keen awareness of everything from politics to policy.

What I’m talking about is our responsibility to fulfil these senior positions in a way we would have wished when we ourselves were the juniors in the organisation.

chrislakeblog_birdsThink back, senior colleagues. When you were wandering the lowly foothills of the organisation, what were your private thoughts and feelings, your silent wishes and pleadings, even your shared and gossiped views, of the big beasts breathing the rarefied air at the organisational summit?

And if your memory is not so long – if casting your mind back to the rosy glow of your innocent youth is proving difficult – then how about recalling the middle years?  Those times where you sat in the ‘squished middle’, responding to the requests and demands of your seniors whilst sometimes protecting and sometimes pushing, but always relying on, those one level below.

So what did we wish for back then?  And more importantly – are we delivering to those wishes now?

My musings on this subject have led me to a list of messages I hope will support my current practice a senior leader:

  • Juniors have the most accurate view.  Research has proven that most often in 360 degree feedback processes, it is the direct reports, not the line manager nor the individual themselves, that have the most ‘accurate’ view.  We might massage our profiles with our bosses, but our reports are rarely fooled.  In essence, we are under their scrutiny all of the time.
  • How we act really matters. Leading on from the point above, we have a responsibility to act true to the values we should hold dear.  I’m reminded of a scene in Silence of the Lambs (an awesome film in my view, though not for the fainthearted) when Agent Starling reminds her very senior FBI boss Crawford of his role-modelling responsibilities:

Crawford:   Starling, when I told that sheriff we shouldn’t talk in front of a woman, that really burned you, didn’t it? It was just smoke, Starling. I had to get rid of him.

Starling:   It matters, Mr Crawford. Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters.

Crawford:   Point taken.

This is about us role modelling.  We might think of one of our behaviours as an innocent act or a small pragmatic decision that blurs slightly the line of good practice but does so in service of getting the job done.  That behaviour though, whether actively scrutinised or just tacitly influential, sets the tone for how our colleagues work and sanctions their practice to follow suit.

  • Design and lead doable jobs. I was disturbed recently as I read a job description of six pages of closely typed heavyweight demands – and nestled hidden in the undergrowth of page 3 was a requirement that all these things be delivered in less than 50% of fulltime (the rest of the time should be hands-on clinical work)! At best, this was unrealistic senior leaders designing an undoable job.  At worst, it’s the bosses setting their middle managers up to fail.
  • Remember: what’s yours – and what is not.  Every time we interact with, or are thought about by, those less senior than ourselves, we lay ourselves open to their projections. I’m a white, nearly middle-aged (ahem), man in a suit occupying a role of relative seniority.  That’s what people see.  They don’t see the me that’s wrestling with the imposter syndrome. But they might unconsciously see the pinstriped men that crashed the banking system, or their intimidating headmaster, or their dad.  I can’t stop this unconscious projection – but I can choose to acknowledge its potential existence and let it bounce off.
  • man pyramidCare in – care out.  At the Academy we are nearing the end of our research project to find an appropriate model of leadership for the emerging NHS.  One of the strongest messages so far is the clear correlation between leadership style and patient/service user/customer experience.  In short, a leadership style characterised by care for employees and internal customer service will manifest in frontline care for patients and a service we can be proud of.  The opposite is also true – lead with a demanding focus on urgency and the service user experience 2-3 levels below is more likely one of efficient scant attention.

I can’t promise to be the best senior leader my team have ever met – to never fall foul of the mistakes I once saw from the foothills of yesteryear’s organisations.  However, I can promise I’ll do my best.  My sometimes inadequate, and oft imperfect, but genuinely heartfelt best.  And I urge my fellow ‘seniors’ to do the same and by all means share with me your own views and ideas on how best to approach being a decent senior.

13 thoughts on “Being a decent senior leader

  1. Hi Chris great message ee should base our quality services around the needs of the people who use them and listen to our front line staff who deliver them. Messages from the people who use our services enable us ss leaders to understand the lived experience which can be very enlightning. I loved the picture, it immediately took me back to some not so happy times in my career. Role modeling is such a simple quality to have but i don’t think that leaders always understand its significance, its such a powerful experience and can helpbto shape our leaders of the future.

  2. Thanks Chris, I feel the scrutiny to role model well, I will keep trying and keep failing but as you say, I will do my heartfelt best!

  3. Nice blog Chris. I remember (when I was young) the CEO of the Council that I worked for did a leadership roadshow. He came over to be and ‘tested’ my knowledge of the corporate objectives. I felt scrutinised unnecessarily – why should I be the one under pressure to know mission clarity? Surely that was his job? It’s now my job.

  4. I really appreciate the point about making (possibly questionable) decisions in the light of just getting the job done. Clearly those that work for you are making judgements against those small decisions which informs their view of you.

  5. Great blog! Genuine, heartfelt and believable. Integrity to me is so important and I need to see that in leaders, colleagues and staff. It goes without saying that I hope others see that quality in me personally and professionally.

  6. My blog seems to have prompted some comments! I’m flattered – thank you all who have engaged. I write these things as musings – my own opinions on leadership and learning – and it’s nice to hear that they provoke thoughts. It’s especially good that these messages appear to have encouraged some self reflection, and possibly encouraged some senior leaders to examine their practice a bit. I hope so.

    I’ve also had some less encouraging comments – not shown here but sent privately. The most disheartening was from a self-confessed ‘squished middle’ nurse. S/he lamented that they didn’t have the confidence to forward the blog to their Exec Team – but that they so wished they did :o(

    Anyway – thanks for your engagement – I’m encouraged to write more. In the meantime – do spread the message (esp’ to the Exec Teams that need to hear it :o)

  7. I did forward the post to a member of our exec team and she too posted it on her twitter feed! We can all benefit from some self-reflection. It doesn’t hurt to prompt thought does it?!

    1. Hey. I’m pleased. Very pleased. You’re right – self reflection can only be a good thing. And if the execs are reading the messages in the blog, let’s hope they do the self reflection and even better senior behaviour follows.

  8. Hi Chris
    Thank you for your blogs, they are highly amusing and thought provoking. I was actually looking for the previous blog you did, as I wanted to share this with a mentee. It was the blog about doubting yourself as a leader. Do you have a link to previous blogs of yours that I can easily access?

    Kind regards
    Mette