Leadership development: no longer just for 'leaders'

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The 18th-century philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said: 'Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being'.

To me this represents an approach to talent and leadership development that resonates very much with the philosophy behind our new programme, Release your potential, which is purposefully aimed at those who may not currently be in a position of formal leadership. The programme is about developing leadership at every level across teams, communities, organisations and systems. It’s a recognition that leadership exists within us all – something we are all capable of embodying, regardless of formal position.

Easier said than done in a hierarchical system like the NHS, I hear you say.

And I agree. But this is even more reason to pay attention to the leadership talent that may currently be lying dormant, undiscovered or untapped in our health and care system. Paying heed to Goethe’s advice, if we treat those who work in the NHS as if they are already leaders and support them to develop their confidence, skills and abilities much earlier on than has traditionally been the case, then could this help address some of the difficulties facing NHS leadership today?

From my own experience of development, particularly during my time at The King’s Fund, I can testify to this. I have been lucky enough to have had many colleagues and mentors who have treated me as if I was already what I was capable of being, seeing potential in me and, in doing so, giving me the confidence and authority to take up that role. It can take someone else to nurture your potential and give you a chance before you’re able to believe in yourself, and for some this can be an important part of building your confidence. Especially in leadership. I know it was for me. But personal development shouldn’t just be down to the luck of having an open-minded manager or colleague who is willing to take a chance on you. It needs to form part of a long-term, multi-faceted strategy to recruit, develop and retain talented leaders, alongside a concerted effort to create a culture that nurtures, supports and encourages this talent to grow.

Those in a position to recognise and support talent have a key role to play, removing obstacles in the system that may prevent this talent from being accessed. Issues of inclusion and exclusion are very much at play here. This is especially significant for discriminated-against groups and in particular those from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background, as we know from increasing evidence that there appear to be systemic barriers impacting on career progression for BME staff. Development and support earlier in their careers might help to address the current situation, where there remains an unacceptably significant difference between BME leadership in the NHS and in the rest of the workforce.

Traditionally it has been the case – and to an extent we have colluded with the idea – that leadership development is for senior leaders in health and social care, and many leaders often access development at the point they formally find themselves in a leadership position. However, it is my belief that leadership development ought to be accessed at any point in one’s career regardless of hierarchical position – the earlier the better – and it needs to be supported within organisations. This is particularly significant given the current unattractiveness of leadership roles in the NHS, increasing number of vacancies at senior levels and an over-reliance on interims. Not to mention the huge personal cost of taking on such roles, about which some leaders are beginning to speak out.

Our recent report, The chief executive’s tale, spoke to the widespread perception that there is a ‘crisis of leadership’ within the NHS, illustrated in part by difficulties in recruiting and retaining chief executives. A key finding of this report was that more needs to be done to support and nurture talent and build the next generation of leaders.

Our new programme is open to those who are looking for their first experience of development, and who are yet to take on their first formal leadership role. My message to people in a position to sponsor the development of others, especially those not formally seen as leaders (yet) is to support colleagues within your organisation to access development opportunities regardless of where they currently sit within the NHS hierarchy. Seek out difference, nurture talent, build capability and open your minds to where talent may reside in your team, service, community or system – and help the next generation of leaders step into what they are capable of being.


Dr Umesh Prabhu

Medical Director,
Wrightington Wigan and Leigh FT
Comment date
30 May 2016
NHS Leadership development strategy is very wrong. Leadership development must be in the organisation where staff work. No one can make someone a leader by taking them away from workplace for few days with some strangers and send them back to their organisation expecting them to lead.

First and foremost NHS must appoint leaders and managers with high core human values. Leaders are simply great role models who inspire staff, motivate them and staff aspire to be like their leaders. So leaders must be excellent staff who lead by examples.

Once you appoint staff with high core values as leaders anyone can teach them leadership skills. these skills must be done locally in the organisation they work, must be multi-professional, multi-ethnic and clinical and non-clinical staff who work together must be trained together so that all of them work together as a team and everyone becomes great leader.

In Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh FT this is what we did. We asked nurses, juniors, GPs, Consultants and Speciality doctors to nominate excellent consultants, good human being, good team player and one who they wanted to see as a leader and we appointed them and trained them to be leaders.

This is one of the reasons for huge transformation and success of WWLFT and today harm to patients has been reduced by 90%. Of course we did many other things including staff and patient engagement and excellent governance.

Kim Manley

Associate director transformational research and practice development & professor practice development & professor practice development.,
East Kent Hospitals University Foundation Trust & England Centre for Practice Development
Comment date
31 May 2016
I do agree it is vital to a) appoint people with person-centered and other key values b) grow a critical community within organizations and across local health economies who are able to have greater impact by working together c) to use the actual workplace as the main resource for learning, development and improvement. d) provide ongoing support and recognition of achievements.

kevin riley

Retired Public Sector Solicitor and User and active Supporter of Doctors and Nurses working in the NHS,
Comment date
07 July 2016
Unless and until there are sufficient nurses and doctors employed by the very highly paid Chief Executives running NHS Foundation Trusts to provider adequate front line care all this type of academic discussion will have no effect on "patient outcomes" whatsoever.

Mike Floyd

Comment date
26 April 2017
Leadership development is very much crucial for people, it helps to develop our personal skills and confidence level. Leadership is no longer a small thing in the current world, in professional as well as personal life, we need the support of our leadership attitude to deal with things. Thanks for such a wonderful post which describe the facts about leadership.

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