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Monday, January 11, 2016

What leaders might really be for - the lesson of Sir Philip Dilley

I don't normally comment on current events, but the resignation of Sir Philip Dilley, the Chair of the Environment Agency who was on holiday in Barbados while half the country flooded out over Christmas, has prompted a thought around leadership.

Sir Philip has said in his statement that when he took the three-day-a-week position (that carries a six figure salary) he didn't realise he was going to need to be on call all the time. He has a point. The Environment Agency has a CEO and numerous directors (who are also presumably on substantial salaries) and quite what we would expect a sixty year-old to personally do in the face of such dreadful floods is unclear. The flak he got in the press for daring to take a holiday abroad with his family was unfair and I can see why he would be annoyed enough to quit. Who needs the hassle, when you've got a knighthood and presumably a decent pension from a career at the top in engineering?

But what Sir Philip illustrates is a tendency of public sector leadership that I've noticed in the part of the public sector where I work, namely healthcare. True, the Environment Agency is a little bit different to a large healthcare organisation, but the function he seems to be playing here is similar to what happens to many healthcare CEOs.

I've just completed an MSc module on the psychology of leadership, which has meant I've had to do some reading around the subject from a more scientific viewpoint rather than the usual 'inspirational' material that I normally think of when 'leadership' as a subject is mentioned. I was particularly interested in the idea that leaders emerge in a complex system and this often leads to conflict with leaders who are appointed to positions and given authority.

(Certainly, it's the case that when a person in a leadership position expresses a view in a meeting you will see people slyly look to the person who has emerged as a leader in the group to see what they think. You see this especially with clinicians listening to ideas from executives. They will look and see what Dr X or Nurse Z think about it.)

Healthcare is a complex system, or realistically, several complex systems that intersect and sometimes derail each other. Leaders often compete - for resources if nothing else. Competition is not necessarily to do with ego, just the natural outworking of trying to plan in unplanned systems.

Realistically, you look at some of the massive healthcare organisations out there and you quickly realise that no one person could ever lead such an operation. There is too much unknown and unknowable in the systems - and that's just the systems we know about, let alone the other things pulling strings that we have no real handle on.

So, what is the function of a leader in such a system? Well, on one level, it's to not lead. I have been immensely privileged to meet several healthcare CEOs and pretty much all of them sum up their leadership style as trying to get out of the way of the people who are doing the stuff, and maybe somehow helping to make life easier for them by smoothing down obstacles.

But there's another role for leaders as well. It's to be the person to blame if things go horribly wrong, as Philip Dilley has found out. Removing him does nothing to reverse the devastation of the floods or repair any of the damage, but we have found someone to 'blame'. He has now resigned and someone has paid for the calamity.

The same thing happens in healthcare. Since I started working in the healthcare sector every NHS Wales organisation has had at least one change of CEO. Some have had several.

I deeply respect the CEOs I've met, and have no reason to believe the ones I haven't met aren't just as good. I've known some leaders who have moved on under a cloud. But I think this is nothing to do with their competency or their attitudes. It's just a sad fact that the main role of a CEO is to take the blame if things go wrong and unfortunately the odds seem to be about 50/50 whether something beyond your control will go wrong on your watch. And if it does, it will be hard to stay on.

This might sound incredibly cynical. It's not meant to be. It could well be wrong, but it's just my perspective on leadership, as one of the led.

If you liked this you could read: The missing perspective on leadership

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