What can rainforests tell us about health and care leadership?

Last week, the winners and judges of the 2015 NHS Leadership Academy Recognition Awards met for dinner.  Jan Sobieraj, the Academy’s Managing Director, led a discussion about the qualities leaders need in health and care and the word that popped up repeatedly was ‘courage’.


As we mused on this we realised every one of the award winners around the table had this quality. Each one of them, inspiring people like Lynda Hughes, Patient Champion of 2015 – wonderfully unassuming and absolutely resolute in improving dementia care – had come up against barriers, resistance and systems that seemed to work against them. Like Linda, each one of them drew on reserves of courage to overcome the obstacles in their area.

You can read more on the award winners here.


In the same week I was sent a given a sneak preview of an important book, a report to the Club of Rome, that is published today. At first sight it is on an entirely different topic, but as I read it, parallels started to emerge. The book, On the Edge, The State and Fate of the World’s Tropical Rainforests by the ecologist Claude Martin, also has stories of leadership and, while being about faraway places and different cultures, they reverberate with courage.


My favourite story from the book starts back in the 1970s and concerns a man called AK Banerjee in West Bengal in India. Mr Banerjee was a forest officer and a courageous leader who had a huge impact on the world. He had an idea to create a better community and his act of local leadership grew. In some ways, it literally grew, into 15 million hectares of protected rain forest. I am going to let the author of On The Edge, Claude Martin pick up the story:


“Banerjee, who was desperate about the festering, unproductive conflicts of the forest department with local communities, established village forest protection committees to share the benefits with the villagers”. He allowed them to collect deadwood, fruit and nuts from the forest and offered labour employment. Local communities were also given 25% of the timber sales.

This was a courageous initiative by an individual forest officer, as it did not conform to Indian forest laws.

By the early 1990s there were over 1,800 local forest protection committees and over 240,000 hectares of Sal (Shorea robusta) forest under Joint Forest Management in West Bengal alone. Other Indian states followed the example of West Bengal and in 1988 a new National Forest Policy Act introduced the principle of participatory forest management. The area under Joint Forest Management increased to 15 million hectares in 1990. It contributed in a major way to India’s forest transition – a remarkable development given India’s continued population growth. Between 1987 and 2003 the total Indian forest area increased by about 6 percent to cover 20.6 percent of India’s geographic area.” 

Claude Martin, On the Edge, The State and Fate of the World’s Tropical Rainforests, Greystone Books


Protecting rainforests is a Herculean task, it is done in the face of population pressure, climate change pressure, financial pressure, biofuel pressure, logging, palm oil planting, the list goes on and on, yet some local leaders like Mr Banerjee are having an impact, and some of them are doing it village by village. And they offer global leaders like Claude Martin hope and inspiration. In the same book Martin offers us the solution to protecting these forests on which the rest of the world depends. Martin has a forward view, in that sense he is a kind of Simon Stevens of the natural world.


So where are the parallels? What can we take from Mr Banerjee and his colleagues out there in the world’s tropical rainforests?  I think there are three key areas worth flagging;

  • The importance of great engagement. Sustainable solutions are so often in the hands, heads and hearts of local people, in our case to be translated into patients, carers, people who use services, staff and local communities.
  • The importance of giving local leaders space to breathe. Mr Banerjee created this himself by forcing the rules (when is it OK to break the rules – there’s a fine topic for a leadership discussion) Perhaps we should be thinking about ways to allow local leaders the space to breath and break down barriers to person centred care. Will initiatives such as the Integration Pioneers and the Vanguard sites allow this?
  • Courage, courage, courage.


At the end of the day, leaders like AK Banerjees and the Lynda Hughes aren’t as far apart as we might imagine. Even the topics of rainforests, health and care aren’t so far apart: take public health and well-being to their logical conclusions and at some point we get to the air we breathe which should make environmentalists of us all.  But whatever our perspectives, whoever we are, wherever we are, let’s encourage courage.


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