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Who decides who the leaders are? Blog Two

19 Feb 2019 - 10:04 by claire.tomkinson

Systems Leadership

I’ve always struggled with imposter syndrome, and over the last couple of years I’ve tried really hard to make friends with it and attempt to turn some of those feelings into a strength rather than letting them become a weakness. It’s something that I’m getting better at with time, and a lot of the feedback that I have received from people that have read my first blog, either specifically mentioned imposter syndrome, or shared that they were starting to recognise that leaders aren’t always who or where we think they are.

So how many people are out there doing amazing things, but without recognising themselves as a leader because of the culture that we’ve built up around us which says that leadership is a position rather than a set of behaviours? A culture that says that leadership is more about the job that we do rather than the person that we are, and that leaders need to know exactly what to do all the time. How much is imposter syndrome preventing people from participating in these kind of discussions because they feel like a fraud and they have been led to believe that leadership isn’t anything to do with them?

Imposter syndrome kicked in again for me three years ago when I received a phone call from two incredible women based at Wythenshawe Hospital. Peta Stross and Annabel Hammond had seen a funding opportunity from the NHS North West Leadership Academy to look at exploring and developing systems leadership approaches. They wanted to look at this in partnership with the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector, as they knew that we were about to embark upon a huge period of change that involved working in a very different way across sectors and outside of our usual boundaries. They knew that working in this way would highlight a load of opportunities and challenges that we hadn’t seen before and they felt that we needed to rethink what it meant to be a leader within the system, and not just within an organisation, to be able to make sense of this. They felt like leaders of the future needed to be comfortable working with uncertainty and in situations where they either didn’t quite know what to do or that didn’t have a standard way of responding. They also weren’t quite sure if the current leadership behaviours and culture were really ready for, or open to, the more distributed and collaborative style of working that was required.

Those of you that have read Blog One Being a "Leader” will know that leadership and I weren’t always best friends, but a big part of my role at Macc involves bringing together VCSE sector organisations and health colleagues to think differently about what keeps people healthy and well in their communities. This can sometimes be a struggle for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to, power, control, professional identity and a belief that the NHS and various health services have all of the answers. I was at the point where I felt that a different approach to leadership and decision-making was exactly what we needed because we just weren’t working with all the different people that collectively had a really important contribution to make here.

Between Peta, Annabel and I, we managed to put together a suitably flexible and pretty decent proposal and a set of ideas, which we presented to the Leadership Academy along with Lauren Wentworth, a clinician from Wythenshawe Hospital. We had a fair idea about the principle and purpose of what we wanted to do. We spent many, many evenings in various pubs and coffee shops talking about the “why”, but from the start, we really struggled with “how” we were going to do it and what our approach would be. When we heard that our bid had been successful, the temptation to take on the kind of leadership role that I described in my previous blog was overwhelming. We had some funding, and it was our job as the leaders of that project to have all the answers, write a plan, agree some targets and tell people what they needed to do in order to improve the leadership style and culture that we were struggling with. Thankfully, it occurred to us that adopting that kind of approach would just make us part of the problem, instead of working collaboratively with others to find a solution together. If we thought we had the answer between us at that early stage, it would have been the wrong answer.


“The best people practising systems leadership are not described in terms of charismatic heroes or divas, but as thoughtful, calm personalities who are as confident working in the background, supporting and enabling others, as they are in the limelight, leading from the front".

(Exceptional Leadership for Exceptional Times. Virtual Staff College, 2013)

We didn’t want to be the heroes that thought they had all the answers, because when we were really honest with ourselves, we actually had no idea what to do next and that was pretty hard to admit. We fought against the feelings of imposter syndrome, and we decided that our role had to be about supporting and enabling others to recognise themselves as leaders who all had a role to play and who were all part of the solution.  We wanted people to re-think what was meant by leadership so they could connect with people that felt like them, with a similar vision and values, and work together around a common cause. We wanted to build a 'coalition of the willing'. Leaders are everywhere and anyone can be a leader if they’re capable of working with others to create change.

I’ve since come across the fabulous Myron’s Maxims, with one particular line standing out: “The process we use to get to the future determines the future that we get”. We love a good process. Especially when we’ve just had a successful funding bid. We too often tie everything up in so many processes, measurements and spreadsheets that we squish out the value of what we want to achieve, and start to value the wrong things. We all agreed that we wanted to avoid that. This couldn’t be a leadership programme or a fixed training course. It had to be something different. It wasn't a "product". It was a different way of working.

Firstly, we made arrangements to co-host a workshop in Manchester with some friends at National Voices and Debbie Sorkin, National Director of Systems Leadership at The Leadership Centre to discuss how we used systems leadership to create change. We opened it up to anyone who was interested and used our various different relationships and connections to get the invitation out. We didn’t plan for anything beyond that, and agreed upon the principle of “Whoever was in the room were the right people. Whatever came out of it was the right approach”. It was scary to start the afternoon plotting session with a set of blank flipchart pages and literally no idea what would come out of the day or what would happen next, but we wanted this approach to be led by our participants, and our fears that we wouldn’t have any were unfounded as over 90 people walked through the door. We’ve since repeated this three times and we’ve had everyone involved from VCSE organisations, housing associations, local residents and people using services, primary care, social care, hospital staff, commissioners, public health and volunteers. Hierarchy was irrelevant and no one was in charge. Myself, Peta and Annabel may have hosted the space and the conversation, but we weren't in charge because we had no authority or positional power over anyone in that room. Everyone had a contribution to make, and the expertise, knowledge and experience of the person using services at Wythenshawe Hospital was as equal and as vital as the local GP, because we were looking at a new way of working where all of us had a small part of the overall solution.

One of the things that stood out for us all was Debbie’s definition of systems leadership: “The collaborative leadership of a network of people in different places and at different levels in the system, creating a common purpose and cooperating to make a significant change”. In the afternoon discussion, the message that we started to get from people was consistent and clear. People were fed up of meetings where the agendas were so tight that no one could talk or make suggestions. They were tired of being asked to respond to endless plans and strategies without being able to contribute or shape them. They were frustrated by the repeated pattern of spending more time on minutes, action plans and agreeing terms of reference than they spent doing the actual work, and they were raising new ideas only to be told that it wasn’t part of phase one of the implementation plan or other various ways of feeling dismissed. We had brought together a large group of people who were really trying to do something different and had lots of ideas, but they were doing it alone and facing all sorts of resistance. Overwhelmingly, they wanted spaces where they could come together to have a conversation without anyone telling them what to talk about. They wanted the opportunity to reflect on what their shared purpose was, and how they could work with others to create change, so we then decided that we were going to have a party in a local community space. We were going to do laughter yoga, have a 'bring and share' buffet and get to know each other.

I can still clearly remember telling my Chief Executive that we’d got the grant from the Leadership Academy and that it was brilliant news, but that we weren’t going to write a timeline, a plan or any outcomes. We had no idea what we were going to do next and that we were going to have a party in a pub. Mike could have told me that I was completely bonkers and that we don’t/can’t work in that way. Instead, he smiled and told me that he trusted me to get on with it if that’s what we felt was the right approach and if that’s what people were asking for. That’s what we did, and the ideas raised and the connections made were amazing. People still tell us that they achieved more in those three hours in the community space than they had in the last six months of meetings combined. There was something special about having that space away from work that made people feel safer about making suggestions and putting themselves forward. What was even more special was that they got on with it and did everything that they suggested, without a single action plan, spreadsheet, monitoring form or feedback mechanism. They were looking at ways of getting things done that were based on new relationships and trust (but I’ll talk more about that and what we did next in my next blog).

We’ve been working in this way for just over three years now, and I’ll end this blog by sharing some thoughts about conversations that I’ve been having with our participants recently (particularly within the NHS) who have either moved into new roles within that time, or are trying to look at a new way of working within their organisations in their existing roles. They are struggling, and I can see that they are experiencing the familiar feelings of imposter syndrome because of the huge amount of pressure to know what to do or to work in a very specific way. They tell me that they feel like they don’t belong, that their views are completely different from the traditional leadership view, that no one is listening to them and that they feel like the wrong person for the role. At the risk of sounding a bit cruel, my response to them is that this is a good thing. Shifting the usual ways of working, sharing power and trying to create this kind of change in a system that has worked in a very hierarchical and siloed way for so long is hard. It's really, really hard. If they fitted right in and agreed with everything that was said, they would be have been the wrong people for that role, because without them and people like them, the conversation never changes.

Working across systems within a context where the landscape is always changing, where new issues are popping up all the time and where you don't always feel like you have a grasp of what is going on and what is going to emerge next requires a different approach to leadership. It may feel uncomfortable, but recognising that you don't have all the answers alone, feeling able to admit this and making sense of things with others instead of imposing your own view or interpretation is a strength, so don't let it become a weakness. If you're struggling with imposter syndrome because the usual "command and control" or heroic style of leadership doesn't feel appropriate, you're probably exactly the type of leader that we need right now. 

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