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'Leaders without a cause could end up like rogue teachers'


I had a salutary brush with authority aged 13 when my biology teacher sent me to the headmaster for writing the name of my favourite football team on the side of a textbook about cells.

“Ha, caught you!” she yelled with an enthusiasm she never applied to teaching. “Go and see Mr Drake and tell him why I sent you.”

Of course, if this had happened when I was, say, 15 I would have wandered to the car park, let down her tyres wandered back and told her that Mr Drake said I was very naughty and that none of us should ever speak of this again. But at 13 I was prepubescent and easily scared, particularly of Mr Drake - a humourless shuffling man with a purple head and no discernible liking for people.

Managers do not need to believe in what they do. But I believe good leaders do

Anyway, to cut a long story short he told me off, recurrently and eventually quite spitefully.

My father had recently died and he said to the attending deputy headmistress (it’s fair to say authority was over-represented that day) that they couldn’t make me pay for the book because I came from “one of those one parent families and lives in a council house”. “We can afford books,” I said, “and Tipp-Ex”. But he wasn’t the listening kind.

But a valuable lesson was learnt, and it needed to be because I was quite a fearful young man, truth be told: I learnt that often authority was a thoughtless bully. It wasn’t always right or decent and it was often handed to the thoughtless who craved power and considered its possession an end in itself.

Which brings me to leadership in nursing. Leadership has long been a preoccupation for nursing, perhaps because there has been such a dearth of good nurse leaders. We want nurses in leadership roles and there are a million courses ready to help with that.

But, in truth, isn’t a large part of the success of leaders born not of the skills they have been taught or the authority they have been given, but rather of the relationship between the leaders and the issue they are taking a lead on?

Of course leadership requires some sort of authority, and that authority has to come from somewhere.

Traditionally, authority is a gift from a higher authority and is lent power by the threat of sanction: “If you don’t do as I say, I will tell the chief executive who will fire you.” And, in these anxious times, that will probably be enough to gather agreement.

But being told we need to do something because someone farther up the food chain says so isn’t always convincing is it? Often we need a little more.

For leadership to be effective it needs more than a threat of sanction behind it. It needs moral clarity - it needs to be properly articulated. In short, it needs authenticity. It is telling that when people talk about great leaders they refer to people who are attached to great causes - Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Nightingale. It is their connection to their project that made them great, not the authority they were presented with by others.

I suppose at heart this is part of the difference between managing and leading. Managers do not need to believe in what they do. But I believe good leaders do.

Leadership is an expression of self, of one’s heart. It requires a moral connection between what you do and why you do it and enough self-knowledge to be able to articulate it.

Leading is hard, in part I suggest because it cannot be done in the absence of a meaningful project.


Readers' comments (13)

  • µ | 22-Jun-2011 5:19 pm:
    Indeed, otherwise its a lonesome journey! Not a reliable assumption that they co-exist, in my experience, though.

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  • I agree with all of the above. However I would to say that leaders do not necessarily in a positon power. a Leader anyone in the organisation. However as a society we see leaders as the one at the top. 9 Food for thouight. And remember with followers there are no leaders!

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  • Anonymous | 22-Jun-2011 10:39 pm

    but wouldn't it also be a useless and totally unproductive journey if there are no

    Sandy Woodbridge | 23-Jun-2011 10:31 am
    I asked the above question before reading your post! I think you have given me the answer.

    I agree with what you say and on my MSc Healthcare Management course we were told of the importance of leading from the bottom up. I think this means leading by influence and motivating and leading is not only directing. Someone who does their job well and is enthusiastic about it can infuse others with their qualities too.

    One of my greatest examples just after qualifying was our Portuguese ward maid who was one in a million and not only did the dusting and mopped the floors very thoroughly several times a day but saw to the comforts of all the patients as well as she went about her duties. In her caring and open attitude towards patients and colleagues she was the true spirit and inspiration of the interdisciplinary team and highly respected by all. She was very sensitive to and respectful of the needs of everybody she came into contact with on the ward and was a great support to us when we were busy. She was also a great observer and reported to us any change in a patient's condition or any need she was unable to fulfill herself. I was fairly new to the ward and did not know her well and sadly never had the chance. I often wondered from the way she reported her observations whether she was in fact a trained nurse or assistant or if this was just her natural flair. She was very discreet but never shied away from anyone or failed to speak out if necessary to the professor, doctors, nurses or ward juniors alike.

    Sadly we lost our gem and the whole interdisciplinary team was devastated. She was admitted to our ward as an emergency and died within 48 hours of cancer, surrounded by her family and before we had even had time to offer her much of the care she merited. She had been to our A&E department (at a university hospital) the evening prior to admission with a fever of 40 degrees and had been sent home. She left behind a loving husband and large family, a toddler and a new born baby less than a month old.

    I have yet to find such a perfect example again of inspiration from the bottom up.

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