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Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence

A few weeks ago, David Dalton, Chief Executive of Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust, spoke at a leadership lecture at the Fund on the journey he had been on to realise his vision of Salford Royal becoming the safest NHS organisation in England. Several of the things he highlighted had a big impact on me.

I found David to be more quietly confident than charismatic pace-setter in both style and substance. He talked about his role as a leader, though always referred to that role in the context of the wider organisation – without the support of which he assured us he couldn’t have delivered his vision. When asked by someone in the audience what would happen to Salford Royal without David Dalton he replied, ‘it's not about heroic leadership; it's an approach co-created with the great people around me and not dependent upon me at all'. That response was in keeping with his message throughout the lecture – the days of heroic leadership are past and teamwork must triumph over hierarchy if we are to achieve the culture change necessary in the NHS. This reinforces the collective leadership philosophy we advocate here at the Fund.

David talked about the importance of having an open culture in organisations, particularly the importance of both giving and receiving feedback. He admitted that he finds giving feedback hard, and that it takes practice, but referred to a quote by Leonardo da Vinci that has stayed with me ever since: ‘Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence’.

I was really inspired by this quote. Whatever the reason may be for not speaking up or giving feedback – fear, lack of confidence, deference – if you feel silenced and disempowered, that has an impact on you as a person and on your ability to do your job to the best that you can. If you are a clinician, what impact does it have on how you treat your patients? We know from the work of Michael West and colleagues about the impact it can have on patient care when staff feel undervalued. We also know that often people don’t speak out as they feel silenced by those they perceive to be powerful.

I worked with someone once who rarely acknowledged the work I did for them. They would ask me to complete work and I would complete it, to a high standard I thought but I couldn’t be sure. There was no recognition of my work, only requests for more work. Looking back, I was silenced by authority. I felt unable to speak up about what I needed in order to do my best, which in turn led me to feel undervalued and de-motivated. Perhaps being acknowledged for your work wasn’t important to my colleague – we are all different and are motivated by different things – but it was important to me.

I recognise that I could have asked for feedback and I didn’t. Feedback is a two-way street; we all have a responsibility to speak out and give feedback to the people we work with regardless of position, power or status. As my colleague Katy Steward said recently in a conversation with leaders about culture change: ‘Leadership is a social process not an organisational chart’.

Margaret Heffernan spoke to a similar message at the Global Health Leadership Forum which was hosted by the Fund recently. She referred to the concept of organisational silence as a ‘dangerous threat’ to the success of any organisation. Her challenge to the group of global leaders was: ‘if people in your organisations don’t speak up then how will you know that they are telling you what they really think?’ We are failing as leaders if those we lead don’t feel able to tell us what is really going on in the organisation, through fear of the consequences. If you want people to give their best then your job as a leader is to enable that, not silence it.

To say nothing is a choice. If you remain silent then others will take your silence as acceptance. The power lies in using your voice.

Watch Chris Ham's interview with David Dalton