Health Service Focus

24.02.20

Too much emphasis on leadership development… and not enough

Words by Dean Royles and Kevan Taylor, who continue their regular contribution to NHE’s blog content. Kevan and Dean work in organisations and systems providing strategic support, advice and development.

Every time the NHS goes through one of its many, many structural reorganisations, there is a renewed emphasis on the importance of leadership development. This is a good thing. We know the importance and value of good leadership and the impact this can have on patient care, staff and organisational cultures.

Unfortunately, what also tends to happen is a "rubbishing" of previous leadership development programmes.

The very natural desire to reinvigorate leadership development at times of massive structural change means people often can't help criticising previous programmes as being ineffective, targeted at the wrong people or not focussed on the right issues. Some of this is understandable as a precursor to securing additional resources. However, in doing so, we make two big mistakes.

The first is that criticising previous development programmes is also an implied criticism of those who took advantage of them, on those that diligently attended programmes, studied and reflected and have adapted and adopted their leadership style. It is a criticism of those that have taken time away from family and friends and endured the personal sacrifices involved in commuting to these programmes. However hard people try not to make the link, it does lead to people feeling undervalued and unappreciated. It has become a circular problem.

The second mistake is the belief that all the problems in the NHS are down to leadership. Leadership development is, of course, hugely important and the evidence supports this. However, a clear strategy, clear priorities and clear aims are also key, as is having the resources to do the job and receiving support from system and national leaders. In fact, given the challenges many leaders have faced through periods of financial austerity and rising demand they have largely done a remarkable job.

When it comes to questioning leadership development for the future, we should create a narrative that builds on what has gone before, not undermining and devaluing previous programmes.

So, on the one hand, we can place too much emphasis on leadership development as a silver bullet, however where we place too little emphasis is on adequately resourcing leadership development. It can’t be done well or effectively on the cheap.

The NHS in England has a budget of around £130bn, Sainsburys has a revenue of c£28bn and the total income For the BBC is c£5bn.  The NHS is massive. it is enormous.  We need to invest in leadership development in the NHS but we won’t be successful if we don’t invest in a way that recognises the size, scale and complexity of the NHS and social care system. This is true for training, development and education in general, but adequate investment in leadership development is essential if we are to deliver on the ambitions of the NHS Long Term Plan

So, let's not over emphasise the importance of leadership development, but we must also not underappreciate the significance and change it can make or the cost of resourcing it effectively.

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