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Future leaders need to lead people not organisations

‘You’re not as kind as you used to be’ wrote Clementine Churchill to her husband Winston Churchill on 27 June 1940.

Clementine believed the pressures of leadership meant Winston being less kind to his staff and she also noted that he was becoming so feared that his team’s ideas and creativity were being stifled. His leadership style was creating poor relationships with his staff and damaging team morale. Is this something that today’s NHS leaders ought to consider when facing the daily pressures and challenges of leading the NHS?

Last week we saw the launch of an exciting new programme for emerging clinical leaders here at The King’s Fund. We know that leadership development is more effective when shared with colleagues from other disciplines and the programme aims 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.

To coincide with the start of this programme we launched a social media campaign, posting a series of questions and Vines on Twitter, to explore and debate some of the issues and challenges facing emerging leaders. The questions covered influential early career advice and qualities needed by future leaders, including a question – created and posted by our programme participants – about qualities that would foster pride in the NHS.

We received a phenomenal and diverse response to this campaign – people at all levels of seniority and from different parts of the health care system and beyond tweeted their responses and thoughts. The early career advice question in particular generated much lively debate – it seems many of us have a story to tell around the advice we were given and the impact that it had on us and our leadership style.

The overwhelming message that came from the responses was about the importance of relationships between leaders and their staff, and how staff feel about that relationship. Lydia Salice, Service Manager at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, sums this up well (inspired by Maya Angelou): ‘People will forget what you say but they will never forget how you made them feel’.

Leaders need to pay attention to relationships and the impact that their leadership has on their staff and teams. Research tells us that if you treat your staff well then they will treat their patients well. Or as Umesh Prabu, Medical Director at Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh Foundation Trust, puts it: ‘Happy staff – happy patients’

Relationships and people, not skills and authority derived from powers of office, are what’s important. As David Buck, Senior Fellow in Policy here at The King’s Fund says in his Vine, ‘Facts and figures matter, people and relationships matter more’, and as Sue Dray, Senior Lecturer, says, ‘If [leaders] care for the staff, the staff will care for the patients. That worked for me... Treat staff well, they work well.’

Respect and value for staff will foster respect and value for patients. This is not a new discovery. Sometimes people just need to be reminded that they aren’t as kind as they used to be and about why being kind is important. As Clementine Churchill said in her letter, which was posted as part of our debate: ‘Terrific power must be combined with kindness’. I would also include being kind to oneself as well as to others and those you lead. If future leaders can combine those qualities then the future leadership of the NHS is promising.

Are you an emerging leader looking to learn and develop multi-professionally? Join our next Emerging clinical leaders programme –  places available on the second cohort starting on 7 October 2014.