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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)

  • Yes it sad to say that none of the Nurse managers i know could be called "leaders" in the true sense of the word. One or two of them showed some signs of promise at the start but quickly became the Chief Exec's lackeys.

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  • I have been lucky enough to work with a nurse manager who was a leader, over ten years ago now. An unfortunately rare breed. I have also worked alongside many petty managers that are more interested in doling out their wisdom with little interest in the ideas of others regardless of evidence base (an annoyingly common breed) which is one of the main reasons I left clinical practice.
    Thank you Mark for another insightful and beautifully written piece.

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  • Excellent article


    "Managers do not need to believe in what they do."

    I 'believe' that everybody whoever they are needs to 'believe' in what they do all of the time then they would do everything (work, hobby, thinking, being respectful to others, or even knocking a nail into the wall) much better making us all much better and responsible citizens, parents, care providers, employers, employees, etc. and we would all be excellent leaders! We are all managers of ourselves, of our time and others at some level or other, and we all have the potential to be the great leaders of what we do, and by extension the leaders of others.

    Most of us sleep most of the time instead of fulfilling our full potential. Perhaps such motivation would also bring about less stress, less inefficiency, less wastage of resources, less anger, bullying and aggression, further enjoyment in what we do and more peace.

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  • experiences of good and bad leadership start at a very young age and what is learned in school creates a life-long lasting impression which colours our attitudes towards others, affects our whole lives and influences our culture.

    I am sure that we all have many stories to relate of unfairness and difficulties which often amounted to bullying by the authorities at home or in school, etc.

    My first was at the age of four in nursery school. On our birthdays we stood up on a chair and related the event with excitement - presents, parties, outings, etc. When my turn came, the teacher refused to believe it was my birthday and shut me up!

    I tried so hard to get things right and although I was labelled as a 'naughty' child there were also times when I was good at school but still got punished or got the blame when there was a rumpus even if it wasn't my fault. on one occasion, standing beside my Mum who had come to fetch me, there was a rumpus upstairs and she heard the head teacher yelling my name very crossly to stop!

    At another school, at the age of nine i was made to walk round the 'teapot' with my hands on my head for a prolonged period. The 'teapot' was a largish flowerbed in the middle of the main school drive in front of all the windows.

    it was a humiliating experience all caused by saying 'bother' which the teacher had misheard and interpreted as a swear word. I was not in the habit of swearing at that age but unable to convince her of what I actually did say. I found it totally unfair that I was not heard and unable to defend myself. it was a case of her word from a position of authority against mine as that of a nine year old.

    I am now 64 and remember these incidences very clearly and the total unfairness of the accusation and the imbalance of power of the teacher over the
    pupil which demonstrated her total lack of respect for a child in her care. Probably my reputation as a naughty child did not give her further reason for a need to listen to my side of the story.

    The problem is that such experiences accumulate over the years and get stored up. On the other hand perhaps it is a good lesson for me to try and avoid treating someone else with such disrespect and disbelief without grounds but whether such experiences help turn someone into a good leader or not is another issue as there are so many different factors involved.

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  • I agree totally with the writer, I have recently been working with a manager who managed by setting examples and quietly and without great ado, dealt with issues that arose, maintaining a dignity, confidentiality and respect for himself and those he dealt with.
    Meanwhile another manager was vocalised public criticism of staff members, often expressed the wonderful way she "rolled her sleeves up when needed," (it would have been better had she lead and managed the team efficiently so we had enough staff in the first place?) And set one nurse against another.
    When attending an interview I always take a good look at how I am treated by the manager interviewing me, if they are courteous, respectful and positive about the workplace, it is a sure bet that is how they work, and that is where I want to be.

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  • As you say Anon above, good leaders, and good workers in general, have no need to sprout forth about how good they are. the ones that do blow their own trumpet are often those who are less effective.

    i spent a dreadful 'snooper day' at a home for mentally handicapped where i thought i would like to work. the woman i was assigned to to be shown around was a bully from the start and I was embarrassed. it turned out that she was not a nurse but head of household and supposedly OT. she organised a group of patients with Down's syndrome to do the cleaning. this started with a round where she proceeded to blow them up for their poor work the preceding week. it would have been far more beneficial if she had kindly and patiently explained to them what was expected that day as I guess one of the difficulties was that they no longer remembered about their cleaning chores the previous week so were unable to improve upon them or learn anything useful from them. it seemed like a case of using them rather than providing them a positive learning experience.

    following that she gave me a pile of 30 shirts to iron. I was perfectly happy to help out but when lunch time came she announced that she would not be returning until 4 pm. I asked what I should do during this time and she told me to carry on ironing shirts! I suggested that it would be more useful to me if I went home and returned at 4 pm too so that I could see how the evening shift was organised. Many of the residents are out during the day and I had been invited to visit them in their flat with the nurses on their evening shift to see what their work entailed.

    I duly went home and at 2 pm I rang the chief of the home when he had returned from his break to explain to him my unexpected change plan. he was furious with me as we had agreed that I go there for the day! At 4 pm I returned and saw him in his office where he informed me that it would not be possible to visit the flat as previously planned because of issues with the protection of the privacy of the residents! I was disappointed but respected this decision.

    I then returned to the housekeeper to inform her that my day was finished and that I was leaving. She nevertheless invited me for a coffee in the restaurant which the residents also run where she did not ask me a single question or any feedback about my day but merely proceeded to tell me how excellent she was at her job and how much all the, to me apparently coerced residents, loved her! I left speechless, at the earliest convenient moment totally shocked at the experience.

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  • I would argue that management and leadership are two entirely different animals. Management is about getting things done and more rigid and structured, leadership more fluid and creative. I also think that leaders are driven more by moral imperative and the idea if either are hindered the energy is deflected somehow else depending on the character type and style of the individual.
    Healthcare is awash I think with quashed, disillusioned leaders and overly power and result focussed managers. It has become, in general, a great deal less about care, and I'm really not sure that I see that changing with the current politics. In this environment it takes a huge amount of courage and robustness to be able to challenge the status quo, including whistleblowing, because the leaders are not able to be or do as their imperative wants, and the management will not allow detraction from the results agenda.

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  • Leaders have vision, know where they are, where they want to be and how to get there. A rare commodity.

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  • Can they inspire everyone else though? Maybe that is rarer still? :)

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  • Anonymous | 22-Jun-2011 4:39 pm

    if they can't then they do not fit the definition of a leader! There is little point in possessing all these qualities mentioned in the post at 4.29 pm if they cannot inspire anybody or take them with them where they intend to go.

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