Sunday, 17 July 2011

Leadership loose ends, and moral compassing

There are some leadership loose ends that I would like to tie up. I have written recently about everyday leadership, and how there is something we can each do to encourage higher performance at work. It turns out that the Kings Fund agrees: in their report ‘The Future of Leadership  and Management in the NHS’, they argue that there is a need to move away from the ‘old, heroic model of leadership’ towards a ‘focus on developing organisations and and its teams, not just individuals’.

I swear that I didn’t write their report, and perhaps more importantly, I swear that I didn’t copy from it either. The idea that leadership is not something rare is really important for us to absorb - change often fails to take place because we are waiting for someone to give us permission or validate our ideas. A professional world in which we feel empowered and motivated to run with our good ideas, without the need from a nod from above is surely a more rewarding place to be.

And yet there is still a huge need for role-modelling. Recall how good it feels to know that you can bask in the protective penumbra of the boss or colleague who will support you unquestioningly; remember the times that you have asked yourself what that person would do if they found themselves in the position you are in. We seek and absorb the examples of those in a position to influence us, and they influence our behaviours and decision-making in a fundamental way.

I was reminded of this by the News International saga, and struck in particular by the behaviours of the people at the top. I had come to the conclusion that Rebekah Brooks must know something very important indeed about the Murdochs, but in the light of her resignation, I have been wondering whether the delay was in fact driven by her belief that she had not actually done anything wrong, and didn’t bear any of the responsibility for the people working for her.

Such a position would amount to what I call deranged moral compassing. We see it all the time - Enron, the response of the financial sector to the banking crisis, BPs attitude to safety, North Staffordshire - situations where questionable behaviour continues for long enough without it being challenged for it to feel normal; where immoral decision-making is validated by Group Think and herd behaviour. Often the response to such situations being outed is to exclaim ‘How could they?’, but I think that is the wrong question: I have seen deranged moral compassing so often that I think the question should in fact be, ‘How can we protect ourselves against it?’

Can each of us say with certainty that we would never be liable to moral deviation from our stated norms? Can we all say that if we had work at North Staffs that we would have done something about it? Be honest.

Now the challenge for each of us to ensure that our working and personal lives include the kind of check and balance that will help us maintain the honest path that I think that most people always intend to stick to. Put another way, how can we ensure that our moral compass always points to true north?

This involves honesty and self-reflection, and asks that we invite others to challenge our decisions and our reasoning. Done well, it can be refreshing to know that you are happy to justify your actions, and that in fact you hope that someone does question you on it. It also asks that we seek fresh influence all of the time, and remember why we are doing it in the first place.

Doctors are often a cynical bunch. The experience of co-existing with other peoples’ suffering, and being comfortable living along side it can be poisonous. But every day, I am surrounded by medical students and junior doctors who still feel the visceral joy of learning how to help the sick, and being alongside them is a powerful antidote to the progressive erosion of my hopes and ideals.


  1. Excellent blog! Thank you.

    People do their own leading, in my view. Organisations tend to undermine such individual action by defining authority as roles. But roles are, well roles. Not the individuals in them. And organisations expect responses from the role. (eg You may be right about your observations about R Brooks, for it looks to me that she was hesitating about resignation because of an image of self not being the same as role)
    But as you point out, work gets done in teams and small units of people, who need to understand together what they are about.
    I liked the blog post!

  2. Wynn,
    Thank you for your comment. The idea about people being constrained by their sense of propriety is important for us in healthcare to realise. There is a way of doing things better, but it does involve the people who work in healthcare feeling like they have to autonomy to act, and creating that environment is one of the next steps for us.