Individual Story from our Storybook

Chris' Story

It had been years since I’d done any personal development. My boss said to me, ‘I insist that you take some time this year, because you haven’t’. And I hadn’t done any for such a long time because I never think it’s okay to prioritise my own development. But she insisted. So, I signed up for Common Purpose. It’s this place-based organisation where they draw people from the third sector, community sector, public sector, private sector. I’m from a Methodist background, so here, there’s also something about serving a community and seeking the best for a place which seems to be inevitably using what’s there, and drawing in all the resources and opportunities, rather than any one of us being able to do it all. I’d realised it was legitimate to do something about my own development, after 20 years or so.


And then I started doing all sorts of courses.  Part of this was being in a group with Workforce Scotland, trying to percolate the work that was going on outward to different sites and facilitating and supporting conversations there. I’ve also been influenced by something called ‘Theory U’, developed by Otto Scharmer which emphasises learning from the emergent future, getting in the right space and then letting the right future emerge. I think the thing behind all this is that there’s a whole atmosphere in public sectors about appearing to be certain, knowing where we are going, doing things quickly, implementing immediately, changing it by tomorrow. The wheel goes faster and faster, ever present in people’s lives. Scheduling and making time for the commitment of learning, reflection, or development sessions can be hard.

A particular moment that’s stood out to me in terms of work with Collective Leadership more generally is that I support a programme, site-based, and it is about supporting learning. Recently, we had a detailed session prepared, but different people came and people who had never come before. We never even looked at the session plan. Instead, we had an interesting discussion together about how everyone in the group has valuable learning experiences through previous jobs, a fertile ground for peer learning. The context changes all the time, there are never the same people in the room as when you started. Someone’s left the job, someone new has been appointed. All of these factors add to the churn of learning. 


I think when you’re doing this collective work, voices of fear, cynicism and judgement can rise. You only need one or two in a group to persuade the rest to think it’s time for action, rather than reflection. I don’t think it’s that the people who are in these partnerships, the community planning, the health and social care are somehow unable to see or unable to resonate with what we’ve suggested. There are always signs that they really could. It’s about giving the time, and permission and space to prioritise it too.  


The opposite can happen as well. I think what we’ve really achieved in the groups that I’ve been involved with is that there’s been a stronger human connection between people, which can be translated into them doing different joint actions to what they might have chosen individually before. In a work meeting recently I was quite taken aback because someone said we’re paid to be here, we don’t need to know anything about each other as individuals. But the rest of the room backed me up, and that person joined in.  After a lifetime of thinking about systems, Peter Senge says the only thing we can do of value is create spaces for people to talk to each other; so whenever we get the chance to do that, it’s a good thing. 


The whole question isn’t that we aren’t already good leaders, but it’s about what steps might you take together to make yourselves even better collective leaders. That’s the question we’ve returned to over and over. So what is the particular element you focus upon, or area, and what are we looking for to say we did it better than last time. It’s incremental learning as you go along. 


All of this has extended out, with the Scottish Government, and in other (health) board roles. In everything I do, I try to promote the personal outcomes approach. This means that things that matter to individuals are put back at the centre, in all levels of the health and social care systems. If you take equalities and human rights in a structural system, for example, there might be a set of rules. But fundamentally, people are genuinely interested in the wellbeing of others, and doing the right thing by them. To do that, you need to understand who they are, and have a good conversation with them about what matters. And that all fits well with what collective leadership offers, and with u.lab because they both appeal to other ways of knowing things which aren’t about rules, but are about people.

I suppose if I wasn’t in this job, I’d be seeking to do it in other ways because people’s roles appeal to different parts of their character. I think it’s by working with groups a bit closer to the ground that we might see a longer term engagement and people owning and embodying how we are seeking to work.