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Care and compassion when it matters the most

Kirstie Stott, managing director of The Inspiring Leaders Network, writes for NHE to ask: how do we shift to seeing our senior leaders as also needing care and compassion when it matters the most?

The recent report from The Kings Fund, ‘Leadership in today’s NHS,’ demonstrated that leadership vacancies are widespread and that tenure in certain roles is short. The message is clear: with 8% of executive posts vacant or filled by interim, 37% of trusts have at least one vacant executive role, 54% of executive directors were appointed within the past three years, and the median tenure of a CEO is just three years.

This is not new news to most – many of the senior leaders I coach in the NHS feel the burden of this day in day out. The effects of this are felt from board to ward, with a focus on the day to day operational pressures and regulatory demands, lack of autonomy and often a top down culture of blame. The report cites that a reduced risk appetite was a contributing factor in the appointment process for directors, which often manifests itself as a desire to appoint experienced people who have done the job before. However, if this approach to appointment is true, this will not only reduce the talent pool and the diversity of it, but will encourage the status quo in terms of leadership that is required not just for the here and now, but more strategically for the future way we need to work.

What really struck me in the report was the emotiveness of the humanistic aspects of leadership. The impact on the people in these roles and the emotional burden they bear. As an executive coach I see this, the vulnerability of people, the concern, anxiety, and stress they hold often in a heroic attempt to protect their teams, their people, the ones who show up in a space of compassion to care for our loved ones.

So, what can be done to enable our senior leaders to feel more empowered, valued, and enabled to focus on the complexities ahead, supported with breathing and thinking space? Where shared ownership and responsibilities enable accountability in a more manageable way, and where diversity thrives?

The way we view the workforce needs to change. We need to move away from a linear view of the world and begin to embrace differing ways of working, not only in senior positions, but across the whole workforce. Our senior leaders are no different to the rest of our workforce in terms of desires to feel valued, ability to contribute, feeling safe and supported in their work, to fulfil potential and not work in a culture of blame and fear, seen as ‘resilient robots’ who can shoulder the burden and pressures they are increasingly being asked to.

I do believe that addressing and challenging some of the current working practices would be a great starting point, managing expectations of the pressures we expect singular people to live with, hold and work with daily needs to change. I’ve seen and heard of some fantastic examples of this recently with more executive job share roles, including the traditional part time share, but also a two-week-off and two-week-on approach to job sharing, and I know for some reading that it will not sit comfortably, however now is the time to find our inner voices to ask, why not? What difference could it make? How will it help look after our leaders? How do we shift to seeing our senior leaders as also needing care and compassion when it matters the most?


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