When do you ‘feel’ like a leader?

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I have been reflecting on the final module of our recent emerging leaders programme. A regular theme of the discussions was around the question: when do you ‘feel’ like a leader? I gradually realised that the answer for our cohort of future leaders was only loosely associated (if at all) with the moment you take up a formal leadership position.

But when do you feel like a leader? This was a particular issue for those early on in their careers, with traditional models of leadership favouring years of experience over aptitude, expertise and enthusiasm. Assumptions are often (wrongly) made based on age as an indicator of capability. For the younger generation to step forward as leaders we must challenge the perception that leadership equates to grey hair and x number of years’ experience. In fact, equality legislation tells us this is discriminatory. Leadership isn’t about how you look, it’s about how you behave and what you do – in other words, an attitude not an appearance. Leadership is a quality we are all capable of embodying.

Do you remember when you felt like a leader? Or are you, like me, waiting for that to happen? It seems to have become more acceptable to answer, ‘I don’t think I’m there yet’. I heard a leader say this recently and I was both surprised and inspired. I was struck by her honesty, her willingness to make herself vulnerable and admit, ‘I am a leader but I don’t have all the answers and that’s okay’. Are we beginning to see a shift towards leaders being able to articulate their vulnerability without fear of being judged or seen as weak?

After all, leadership isn’t about having all the answers, it’s about the ability to pull people together to work out the answers. As David Dalton, Chief Executive of Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust, said in a leadership lecture he gave at the Fund recently, ‘the answers to the issues facing this organisation will not be found in my office’.

If leaders were freer to admit that they didn’t have all the answers would that help to make leadership positions in the NHS more attractive and begin to address the problem of vacancies at senior levels? Could this type of candour also open the door to greater collaboration across teams, organisations and systems? Leadership is an important determinant of the culture of an organisation, so if we see increasing levels of honesty and openness among leaders, it could enable other parts of the organisation to be more open and honest. We know in health care, as in other sectors, there is much to be gained from creating more open and inclusive cultures.

My sense is that we have moved on from leadership being associated with positional power – it has shifted from the individual to the collective. Collective leadership involves distributing responsibility and authority to whoever has the expertise and capability at a particular time and for a particular situation, regardless of where they feature in the hierarchy. Are we ready to see our health care assistants as every bit as much of a leader as our chief executives, and are they ready to feel like leaders?

Horizontal leadership distributed among many, rather than vertical leadership in the hands of a few, is the style our future leaders are adopting – seeing leadership as an ethos and a shared task, not a position on an organisational chart or a title on the door.

So let’s move away from the idea that one day, some day you will feel like a leader. My guess is you already are.

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