I read a lot about ‘leadership’. Tips on being a great leader. How to lead. Even, rather comically in my view, on the Frontline site, something about social work being a ‘leadership profession’. Most of the advice comes from other leaders – or people who claim to be leaders. I’m not a leader. I’ve not read or studied anything about ‘leadership’. I’ve not, and can’t honestly believe I ever will go on any ‘leadership’ programmes. It’s not who or what I am about. Perhaps that gives me more of a vested interest in good leadership because while I am very contented to be a follower, there’s nothing more I want than to be led well.
I’m fortunate to have generally, in my career, had good managers with a few notable exceptions. It’s above that first-level management position that I want to consider how we, as competent professionals are led and thought it might lead to some reflection on what I would like to see in a leader. There’s an ongoing contention that leadership and management are different. I’m not entirely convinced by that. Leaders have a ‘position’ and management gives that role a concrete base. Managers are told to lead but people are drawn to leaders – perhaps that’s the difference. I’m yet to be entirely convinced by people who say that leaders can lead from without a management or authority position.
So what would I like to see in a leader in order to feel that I am being ‘led’ well.
I have to feel that the person who leads comes from a position of authority. Maybe that is a management perspective but I am more considering an element of expertise. They have to be able to know what they are talking about. In health and social care, I think this is where there is a strong push for patient/service user/carer leadership can come from because the expertise is in the understanding not just the processes of services which are delivered but having experienced them and working through them. In most ways, the expertise garnered in being at the end of services is the most precious one that some ‘professionals’ find hardest to garner. That feeling of being powerless in the face of the powerful state leviathan – whether it be the hulking hierarchical health service or the unfathomable processes lurking within the local authority and being victim to its resource allocation systems. Experience isn’t the only base for expertise, although it is a uniquely precious one. Leaders could be experts in a particular way of working, communicating, understanding or interpreting. There has to be a basis of authority though based on knowledge – although that knowledge can be achieved through many different strands.
As well as knowing what they do, they have to be good at actually doing it. I have often reflected on the days I started working in social care, firstly as a volunteer, then as a support worker. I did ‘hands on’ care work for a number of years before I moved to do my social work training. When I was working in residential care and in care management, I’d often say that we should never be asked to do something by someone who wasn’t prepared and able to do it themselves. ‘Hands on’ care shouldn’t be ‘above’ anyone and certainly not above any so-called leader. This worries me somewhat about people who ‘fast track’ into leaders. When I went out to review people in residential homes or to review home care packages, I knew what the constraints on time for staff were. I knew that you couldn’t provide someone with a dignified shower and breakfast in a 30 min call. Although I couldn’t always change the local authority commissioning, at least I was able to empathise (for what it was worth) with the people who were using the service and the care workers who had to carry out the tasks which often institutionalised poor practice through the lack of time. Of course, I’m not anything special but extrapolating out, in my previous job, I knew my manager was not just a competent social worker, she was an excellent social worker and I saw her at work from time to time and remained (and still do) in awe of her competence. So I followed and took advice and strived to be as good as she was and is. My main sadness is that was rarely acknowledged from ‘above’ for her. I wasn’t as convinced that our Assistant Director was a competent social worker because I’d never seen him in a practice environment and suspect it had been many many years since he had ever come close to face to face practice. How could I be effectively ‘led’ if I wasn’t sure of his competence, not in the management role but in the tasks the organisation was being asked to achieve. Of course, I’m not unrealistic. I wouldn’t expect every Chief Executive to be able to do all nursing tasks – especially if they aren’t nurses but I would expect a deep understanding and appreciation of the work done by everyone in the organisation, from the person cleaning to the catering staff to those out in the community.
This is where I think these graduate ‘leadership’ programmes slip up because I think a good leader needs humility. They need to be aware of their own power and the effect that has on people. I feel a little intimidated by power and yet, simultaneously, I can be unaware of my own power at times. In some ways that’s what I see as humility. It is an appreciation of both the power that the leader has and the effect that has on other peoples’ interactions with them. The conversations I have about work with someone in my team who I see as a peer, are very different from the ones I might have with my manager, which, in turn, are different to those I might have with a director or chief executive within the organisation I work. So likewise, an awareness of that power I think, is very important to lead as well as an understanding that learning comes from different sources and is rarely a top-down process. One of the great blessings of social media in my view is that it has reinforced my learning from different angles and has weakened my inherent respect for the assumption that learning has to come from ‘teachers’. That’s something I’d extrapolate to ‘leaders’. You who lead can and must learn from those who follow in order to lead well. Just because you have a higher paid salary with greater position and power doesn’t mean the expertise you have is broader than all those ‘below’ you. A dose of humility is needed because without it, none of us can continue to learn and grow. I see this on Twitter sometimes when you see who some of the so-called leaders follow and interact with. There are those who will not deign to converse with those whom they assume to be ‘below’ them. I imagine their learning curve is more shallow than those who are open to conversation, learning and interaction from all-comers.
4) Reflection and Empathy
I see reflection and empathy in the same bracket because I believe that critical reflection leads to empathy and the two can’t be separated. A leader who is in a position to be able to ‘make a difference’ has to be able to consider their own role in systems that sometimes work and sometimes (perhaps more often) don’t. They can’t delegate constantly but sometimes need to think through what they can do to make changes. It might be something little or something major – depending on the position or the context. Then, they have to be able to look back and consider if they acted in the way that best served those who are being led. They have to be able to accept and learn from mistakes and acknowledge them. This is a key part of growth and understanding. This is a key part of being able to retain the confidence of those who follow. This is what I want from a leader. When things are being done or have been done badly, I want honesty not fudging. Reflection is a part of that where we learn to understand our own motivations and influences in the choices we make. Empathy grows from that as they begin to learn from others and understand better how it is to see things from different angles.
Perhaps this is the most difficult to define but I think it’s a core difference between leaders and followers. This explains some of my lack of faith in ‘leadership programmes’ because I’m not convinced that inspiration can be ‘taught’. It is the ability to move people in a particular direction because they believe in you and want to work towards your vision. It’s people having faith in you and your decisions. Maybe I’m not able to define it well but I think it is definitely an area that can be refined but it has to be genuine and honest. You can’t read a book about how to inspire others and expect to learn from it. You have to learn it, I think, and as is very clear, I’m far from an expert, by truly believing in what you do and having a passion for it.
So there’s my very uninformed and personal plea to leaders in how to lead me. That’s what I want from you. I don’t want to be a leader, but more than anything I want to be led well and I want to feel we want the same things, you and I. We want to make things better and we want to work together for those whom we serve. I don’t want to be engaged in battling against the organisations I work in to feel that I’m serving those who use the services to my best. I will feel well-led when we move in the same direction.
I understand leadership is tough. That’s one of the reasons I don’t want to do it. I’m lucky that I feel well-led now and there’s no better feeling as a member of staff than to have that utter confidence that we move in the same direction and have the same goals. I realise that’s a very good place to be. Lead well and we will follow well and with all our hearts and you will have much more power to achieve those great outcomes with committed and focused followers behind you, supporting you all the way.