We were thrilled to welcome John Mark Williams, CEO of the Institute of Leadership & Management, as our guest speaker at a recent online forum for NHS charity sector leaders. John has built his career around international business, talent development and association leadership. He has held leadership roles with ACCA UK, Santander UK and Gateway to London.
John focused on leadership in 2021 and discussed themes including resilience, organisational agility, business continuity and preparing for recovery.
Our guests, as senior leaders of NHS charities, provide creative contribution and improvement to the work of the NHS. Their roles are focused on supporting, supplementing and adding value to the work of the NHS. In John’s view, they face two types of challenges in doing their role and they are the same challenges that leadership figures face absolutely everywhere.
Firstly, challenges of character and secondly, challenges of context.
Senior leaders are expected to have a vision, set objectives and make decisions. They manage and lead in all five of the core functions of an organisation:
They are also expected to be responsible for achieving results and modelling behaviours. The challenge of the character, that is expected of them, is that they may not be fully trained in being able to ‘do’ all of those things or they may not be experienced in doing all of those things. They may not really have had the opportunity to do all of those things in their career.
Part of that is because of context. Even if we are fully trained and fully experienced, we may not have the opportunity to be able to do it right because context isn’t just about now, it is always about now AND later.
We have, as human beings, a tendency to overestimate the importance of character and underestimate the importance of context. The context may work against us. Whilst you know how it should be done, there will be people who disagree for example.
Some of the characteristics leaders need to develop are:
- Patience - Not being in a hurry. We should be focusing on the practical and pragmatic outcome that we want to achieve.
- Leading beyond authority - Another important leadership style is influencing others in different worlds and producing change beyond your direct circle of control. Here, John gave the example of ‘intelligent networking’, bringing a group of people with a vested interest together which enabled leaders to operate by influence.
- Knowing when to be impatient - We talked about the importance of knowing when to be patient, but equally important is knowing when to be impatient. In the end you might have to do something deliberate to inject urgency even when faced with resistance. Your passion and commitment will shine through when you do that.
- Focus on shared outcomes - There is a great phrase from Geoffrey Crowther who was one of The Economist editors – ‘simplify then exaggerate’ – try to reduce what it is you want to achieve and what you want to say to the simplest possible form and then just keep saying it. This is the essence of successful politics for example. Boris Johnson wouldn’t have achieved what he did with Brexit had he not had the simple phrase ‘Get Brexit done’.
The conversation moved to how passionate leaders are allowed to be emotional. John referred to the research which makes it very clear that women are better leaders than men. The characteristics of effective leadership are not necessarily the same ones that we associate with the ‘hero leader’ that the positions for which are occupied mostly by men. The challenge though is finding the language that remains persuasive and authentic. Authenticity is the fundamental platform on which we achieve anything at all.
John’s advice? Firstly, don’t worry about being yourself. Secondly, if people are discomforted by your passion and enthusiasm that tells us more about them then it does about you.
We then touched on coaching as a style of leadership. One of the things a coach can usefully have is a detachment, an objectivity about the team. And that’s important from a leadership and management perspective to be able to achieve that objectivity. The people that work with us, or for us, are first and foremost our colleagues and not our friends. We have to look at them slightly more objectively than we would a friend.
We talked about creating a coaching culture - this simply means a culture where everybody works to help everybody else achieve the outcome that they collectively want to achieve. It is a forgiving culture, it is a helpful culture, it is a culture that says 'what is it that you personally want to do and how can I help you do it?'
The conversation ended on the concept of failure. Failure is part of the process of success and we need to accept that success is a failure that went wrong. It is a process by which we learn about our resilience and challenge ourselves to try again.