Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success
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Leadership Is A Choice, Not A Training Course

Last week I read an article on the National Health Service (NHS) by the UK Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock. The title of the article piqued my interest, ‘Good NHS leadership starts with culture change’.

It's one of those bland headlines with a hint of propaganda to it that I would normally ignore and, yet, he's partially right so I took the (click) bait and read on.

I’m normally wary of anything spoken or written by politicians, because, well, politicians. Watching and listening to them is an often dispiriting exercise and a demonstration of how detached they are from reality. There’s too much ego and not enough honesty; they are the antithesis of the role models we desperately need in our society right now.

If you disagree, go ahead and name 10 global political leaders that you admire.

OK, name seven…

Jacinda Ardern, Moon Jae-In, Angela Merkel, err, Emmanuel Macron (although his approval rating is only 26%, so maybe not?), Justin Trudeau (if you ignore the oil pipeline thing and the way he’s disregarded indigenous rights), err… #tumbleweeds

Anyway, back to the article in question. It started well.

‘There’s no organisation on earth on the scale of the NHS that deals with life and death decisions every single day, often in highly pressurised and challenging conditions. But that doesn’t mean we should be complacent or that we can’t learn from others – particularly when it comes to leadership.’

Yes! Finally, a minister that gets it. Someone who understands that there’s something for every organisation to learn from others around the world every day. Their successes, their failures, their ideas and the things they chose not to pursue. Who understands that humans are learning machines, wired to work with other humans to get things done.

He then compares the NHS to McDonalds, and frankly they are about as similar as chalk and cheese(burger), but he made a good point about accountability, decision-making and continuous improvement, so I let that pass.

He continued, ‘What the NHS does is so much more valuable, but can we honestly say that we place as much time, effort and importance on identifying, developing and supporting leaders? That we value it?’

Fabulous stuff, which – as a former public servant – I feel qualified to answer on behalf of every government department in the world. No. No, you don’t. You’re all smiles and promises when you get into office, but then good people are forced to overwork to deliver your whims to unrealistic timescales, for not enough money and at the expense of their mental health and personal development (because the budget for this always gets pulled).

And then, just as I was getting even more drawn in, he took the wind out of my optimism (which causes me to mix my metaphors) by reaching for the inevitable quick-fix solution: ‘We need to train more people to be leaders in the NHS.’

Oh Matt, it was going so well.

Now don’t get me wrong (or start typing your vitriolic reply just yet) because there is a lot of good that can come from a structured program that opens people up to become a more self-aware, better version of themselves. However, simply sending people on a course so they can ‘graduate’ or get a certificate doesn’t make them a leader.

Neither does the length of tenure, size of a team or the fact that the word leader is used in their job title or position description. Hierarchical position also doesn’t make an individual a leader. This is being played out quite publicly at the minute in Australia as part of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, where a string of CEOs have shown quite clearly that they’re anything but.

This is because what sets leaders apart from managers is the choices they make to do things differently.

Sure, they may attend a program, but what behaviour will they change? What skill will they learn? What personal biases will they address? What feedback will they start asking for? What bureaucratic process will they challenge? What new idea will they encourage others to pursue? What unethical action will they call out? What will they say ‘no’ to? How will they protect those that work with them? How will they work with others to build a culture that means that people are motivated to come to work and are able to be the best version of themselves there?

This is what leadership is. Leaders embrace others as equals and show them how to lead. They say nice things behind people’s backs. They know their stuff and work hard to learn new stuff. We watch and listen to what they do and try to emulate it. We wonder where they get the time to do everything and how they manage to be the calmest person in the office at the same time. And we miss them (we do!) when they’re away.

Whilst you can talk about this as part of a development program – and I frequently do – you can’t force people to do it. They have to want to do it, feel inspired to do so and then hold themselves accountable for taking action.

Of course, this process takes time. You have to lose people along the way who don’t want to do it and that will take courage from other leaders. This, in turn, sends a message to staff about what’s expected and eventually people take one step up.

And this is reinforced by Matt in his article when he says, ‘...leaders create the culture, and so many of the problems of the NHS can be solved by a just culture.’ That’s right, a just culture co-created by people who understand what choices have to be made to do things differently this time.

Less hierarchy, fewer roadblocks, a reduction in bureaucracy and psychologically safe environments where staff are encouraged to build relationships and challenge poor practices, performance and behaviour are all achievable, but not tomorrow and definitely not straight after everyone has been on a course.

So when Matt says in his article ‘We need more clinicians to become CEOs’, I’d change it and say, ‘We need more people who understand what it takes to lead and to deliver to their potential.’ Too often we put a label on leadership and think that’s where it sits. It doesn’t.

Leadership lives in us all and it’s our choices, not a training course, that determines whether others will ever see it.


As a footnote to this blog, I wanted to say that I very much enjoyed Matt’s piece, even though it may not seem like I did! It’s rare that politicians write about leadership and culture and it’s heartening to see someone have a go. The fact that he’s stretching his own thinking and putting his thoughts out there eloquently serves as an example to others, which I hope they take up.

Also, once I’d written this blog I also found out that Suzie Bailey, Director of Leadership and Development of The King’s Fund, also wrote a reply to this article in the Health Service Journal, which you can read here.


Coming up next time, Cricket Australia… #dontgetmestarted