In or out?

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The husband and I played the ‘what was your first record’ thing the other day. His was ‘The Best of Cream’, he can (if you’re not careful) still recount the running order of the tracks…it dates him.

Karen LynasAs do his outfits – my favourite old photo of him is in 21 inch flares, stack shoes, cheesecloth shirt with spoon collar open to his navel and shoulder length curly hair. He looks ridiculous but he tells me with little embarrassment that it was ‘really fashionable then’. I’ve never been at all fashionable. Partly because by the time my eldest sister’s clothes made their way down to me it was a couple of years later and the fashion passed me by. I remember once tottering to school in her old, huge green cord platform wedges and being ridiculed. That evening she just looked at me wearily and said it was because they were hideous. When I complained that everyone used to love her in them she said it was because they were trendy then, like that explained it, as she flounced out the door in her stilettos, spray on black pants, boob tube and curly perm, smelling of Rive Gauche.

My husband joined the NHS back when there were no graduate trainees, there were national administrative trainees. His big boss was the District Administrator. There were no general managers, no chief executives and people didn’t talk about leadership. The titles have come and gone like so much fashion. What worked then is looked on as slightly quaint now. So, is all our current talk about leadership just a fashion too – that someone might try on for size one day and find lacking, not trendy enough?

I remain stubbornly off trend. I have lost count of the number of girlfriends who at some point looked at me with their head to one side (they are usually hunting in packs at this point and have me outnumbered) and ask if I haven’t tried to ever make something of myself, ‘you know, do something with your hair, or your eyebrows, or your face, or wear something that fits, in a different colour’…etc. or my least favourite – ‘what about accessories?’. I completely missed that lesson in school. But it’s always hopeless – no matter how they try I always end up looking a bit like this. I’ve learned to live with it and it mostly kind of works, partly because I do me now a bit better; I have learnt over the years how to do me well. I now think of myself as timeless – it is an elegant, if incredibly generous way of saying that this is me; I’ll never be on or off trend, unless by sheer accident one day everyone else starts looking like me.

The work I have done follows a very similar pattern to this part of my life. I started in management development, and now largely work in leadership development. Clinical leadership remains fashionable, systems leadership is quickly pulling up on the outside. But really, sat in a room with an individual, or a team, or a board, many of the same things matter: how we speak to each other, what we talk about, what we give privilege to, how we make decisions. Whatever the fashion, the reality is that much of what I actually do when I am with people is the same thing. I hope I have gotten better at it, but it’s pretty much just what I do. I hope it still matters.

My husband tells stories about what mattered in the days of administrators and the important things sound much the same. People who were seen to be good at what they did were largely seen so because very similar things were valued then as are now, compassion for patients isn’t a new thing at all surprisingly. Attention to the needs of others, ability to have engaging conversations, vision, being trusted, doing what you say you are going to do, skilled planning and great communication. These things remain, irrespective of what we call them. What is an appraisal other than a meaningful, focused conversation with purpose? And is that a leadership skill or a management task? Does a revalidation conversation take markedly different skills and behaviours from an appraisal? And if it is being done by a medical professional does it mean it’s about leadership and not management?

Our professional leadership development programmes went live this week. We have worked enormously hard to make them current; case studies, patient stories, staff input, new curriculum content, use of new and exciting technologies. We want the programmes to equip people to lead in a very different future. These things will change, they will be updated every year, not as fashion comes and goes but as new knowledge and experience emerge, as we have new things to learn from other systems. The content will be kept live and the learning vehicle excitingly current.

But at the heart, I think there are some core things which are decidedly old fashioned; a sense of collective purpose and common endeavour; attention to efficient and effective use of resources; and above all learning the skills and behaviours needed to be with and work for people: staff, patients, colleagues and peers well. I may never be a trend setter so don’t look to me for that, but this – a refreshed, new and very thorough approach to developing people – that’s one trend I am on board with and really do hope is here to stay.

One thought on “In or out?

  1. I agree with your comments about ‘old fashioned’ nature of essential leadership characteristics. As part of my MSc in medical leadership I spent time at sea and on land with the Royal Navy. They have been practising ‘leading people’ for over 200 years relatively free from interference from the outside world. I believe we can learn a lot from their leadership style.