Emerging leaders: learning together to deliver future health care

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Shortly after joining The King’s Fund, I facilitated a commissioned leadership programme for newly appointed consultants. A general surgeon, challenged by the issues the programme raised for him, asked me: ‘Would you perform your own appendectomy, Donna?’

The possibility had never crossed my mind: ‘I wouldn’t know where to start,’ I replied, rather meekly. ‘Quite!’ he exclaimed. ‘That’s how I feel about all this leadership stuff!’

There are times when all of us feel anxiety around our competence. It’s common and a part of being human. Clinicians are experts in their specialties and we, as patients, rely upon their competence to aid recovery from illness. However, the skill-set clinicians need to lead effectively is quite different, and learning to confidently and competently deploy leadership skills, attitudes and behaviours is paramount. Diverse teams of health care professionals who have shared collective leadership are absolutely crucial to the leadership of today’s health service.

Emergent clinical leaders are the leaders of the future. It is they who will increasingly provide care across organisational and health and social care boundaries. It is they who will establish fit-for-purpose multidisciplinary care that leads to better patient outcomes, centred on the needs of patients and service users.

In trying to understand how we can best support emerging leaders, my colleague Mandip Kaur and I have been looking into how emerging leaders learn effectively. We know that learning alongside colleagues from other professional backgrounds helps to improve multi-professional team-working because it helps to break down silos and barriers and promotes a collective team identity. Multi-professional learning is supported by volumes of research and, from our experience at The King’s Fund, we know it makes sense and here is why.

Let’s look at the evidence. High-performing multi-professional team-working has clear benefits:

  • for patients: evidence shows a reduction of medical errors, increased patient safety, lower mortality in hospitals and greater satisfaction 
  • for staff: research findings indicate lower stress levels, increased job satisfaction, lower absenteeism and an improved intention to stay in the job
  • for efficiency: streamlined, cost-effective care with reduced physician visits and hospitalisation rates.

We are listening with curiosity to the people we meet here at The King’s Fund. At our recent medical engagement workshop, clinicians told us what had supported their leadership development at various stages of their career. A number, especially those at the beginning of their career who could see the direct benefits to their organisational role, expressed a preference for learning multi-professionally. 

A clinician at one of our medical engagement workshops told us, ‘Engagement would improve if we develop people multi-professionally’ and a specialist trainee said, ‘My work relies upon multidisciplinary team work. Learning together with other professionals is both important and effective.’

It is our emergent leaders who will be called upon to ensure effective team work, in and across organisations in the future. And it is our intention to support these emergent leaders to find their purpose and develop the skills, confidence and behaviours they need to tackle future health care challenges.

With this in mind, we have refreshed our Emerging Medical Leaders open programme, previously known as Specialist Trainees, to give doctors, nurses and other health professionals the opportunity to learn about themselves with the colleagues they will be leading future health care with. The programme allows delegates to become aware of their attitudes and behaviours towards others and how this stands in the way of caring for the patient – cultures of quality and safety depend on this.


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