A test of leadership in strange times

In recent, more familiar times, there has been a discourse about effective leadership in the NHS. Much has been said about compassionate leadership, servant leaders and new power.

The benefits of our deliberate change in leadership style were becoming evident. Listening carefully to those we serve was central to the crafting of the future People Plan. Attention was paid to a ‘leadership compact’ which was to make for a better NHS, more likely to meet the needs of our NHS people and in turn the populations we serve.

Then came Covid-19. Our world as we knew it no longer exists. Things we took for granted are no longer certain. People across society have come together; this crisis has brought out the best in us. There are stories of heroes, warriors and Herculean efforts.

This is an unprecedented situation, and everyone understandably seeks visible command and strength in their leaders. Clarity of direction is critical in these times, decisions must prioritise safety and those in senior roles will be accountable now and long into the future

We have observed a display of different kinds of leadership activity, relentless efforts daily, all week, often way into the night. In a spirit of ‘We are all in this together’ our leaders have drawn from immense energy reserves. Now as we are beginning to confront the impact of Covid-19 there are plans for recovery, but our lives have changed.

Our leadership behaviours and qualities have recently been and will continue to be tested, with greater and more open scrutiny than ever before. We will experience the most challenging tests of our abilities ever.

Does command mean ‘control’ and ‘top down behaviour’?

Is it possible to be compassionate and hold authority at the same time?

We won’t always get things right; so can we say sorry and mean it?

 What kind of leadership behaviour is deserving of trust and respect?

During this crisis, process and transparency in decision-making becomes even more important. As there is less time to undergo the scrutiny that is afforded by usual governance structures, we become more directly accountable to the people who feel the impact of these decisions.

With regards to recent decision-making, it has been said that “We need the best people under these difficult circumstances.” Everyone wants the ‘best’ to take the critical actions which affect us and our loved ones. But how do we decide who is best?

Where do we look for the best? Do we look in different places and amongst different groups because untapped resources are not found in the usual places?

Sadly, uncomfortable truths about equality, diversity and inclusion are being exposed daily. Now is the time for leaders to speak up directly about this, to take personal responsibility and to be visible in action. For example, there is an emerging need for meaningful action in response to grief and loss. Leading with authenticity and connecting with those we serve will be our greatest challenge.

How we step up to the many challenges in this new era of NHS leadership will define who we are as individuals. Can we be humble, not humbled?

Everyone is watching us.