Individual Story from our Storybook
I’m not sure I could really pinpoint where my journey with collective leadership started. Much of my early leadership development was focused on how to manage rather than how to lead; developing a vision, mission statement and a business plan, the external environment was seen through the lens of the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis. The world seemed to be full of inspirational leaders who had unique human characteristics that were required to be truly successful but which many of us were lacking. Partnership working was more about sharing our separate plans rather than developing a shared understanding of the complexity of the problems that we were tackling or the critical interdependence of our activities on the communities that we served or indeed taking time to understand their lived experience.
My professional background is in social work, so the importance of personal reflection and the use of self in professional relationships was something that I understood, as well as the critical importance of the socio-economic determinants of people’s life chances. When I became involved in the delivery of health and social care services, I was often frustrated by the challenge of establishing good working relationships across what often felt like intransigent systems and my inability to overcome professional barriers that constrained the progress that we could make in our journey to integrate services better around the needs of individuals and communities.
Throughout my career, I have learned a great deal from my first-hand experience of the benefits of strong partnership working across organisations based on relationships of trust. One such experience was that of managing the return of an offender to the community in the face of significant opposition from the local community. As partners we worked closely together over a period of time to understand the risks that we were dealing with, as well as the fears of the local community. It was that shared understanding of where we were each coming from that allowed us to be brave enough to work much more openly with our local community than was common practice in managing offenders. We would never have been able to do so without reaching the level of trust that we did as individuals within the partnership. That experience really helped me to understand the importance of investing in relationships to enable us to be brave, to do things differently, and to manage the stress that we as leaders are under when managing these highly stressful situations.
From experience, I have also learned the importance of trying to better understand the impact that the system has on people who use services and the insights of frontline workers who hold so much intelligence on the impact of services and what works best for local communities. Their contributions are really vital to the development of better solutions to what sometimes feel like intractable problems.
The Christie Commission highlighted the need for the statutory sector to work better together, to listen to communities and to focus on the delivery of outcomes that matter. This has provided a new context for the exercise of leadership in which partnership working is now central. Despite the growth of local partnership activity, I think we’ve not realised the full potential of that shift yet, because the draw is still upon accountability within systems. Too often what we do is stitch together the individual organisational plans driven by the policy initiatives, and it becomes a patchwork of the offerings of the different statutory bodies, depending on where their pressures are rather than an innovative response developed in partnership with local communities. Too often we’re not able to move beyond the constraints of the systems that we’re working in and we’re missing out on the creativity and innovation that can emerge from conversations where we genuinely listen to each other, acknowledge our vulnerability and accept the support that we can offer each other to overcome the challenges that we’re facing.
There’s a big gap here around recognising the importance of taking time to stop, reflect, listen, wherever one is. The commitment to addressing inequalities has never been higher across the public sector. The establishment of Public Health Scotland and the learning/experience of responding to Covid 19 brings another opportunity to harness and co-ordinate the capacity of the public health workforce to support local systems. But our conversations can still be a bit like the Tower of Babel. We’re all speaking in different tongues, and there’s a big job to do to try to understand and listen to each other. The timing is good and the opportunities are there to work differently, but we now need to focus and invest in those critical human relationships. I think that’s the offering of collective leadership.
Collective leadership seems to me to be what has the most potential to support and help leaders to deal with the pressures that they’re experiencing. Systems are what they are. We need to work above and beyond those systems and use the capacity that we all bring to form and nurture these vital relationships that will unleash our capacity to make those transformational changes that we are committed to delivering.