Last week I was introduced by Dr Kathy McLean, Medical Director at NHS Improvement to 180 people comprising senior NHS clinicians, managers, directors, chief executives, patient representatives and members of staff at NHS Improvement, including most of their executive team. And I wondered how my homespun talk about improvement, leadership, the universe and everything would go down.
As it turned out, quite well.
The cartoon above was drawn by Inky Thinking. I don’t know how they do it, but they capture everything you say that you want people to remember.
Here is a word-based precis:
- If you forget that culture always trumps strategy, your efforts to improve services will be ineffective. I’ve been there and occasionally done it the right way. But more often the wrong way.
- You can’t help others to improve unless you are OK yourself. I have form on not remembering this.
- Leadership in public services has never been harder with our 24/7 media, including social media, and the anti-public sector rhetoric that appears in most newspapers.
- Plus we live in a post-fact world – see this article by Guardian Editor-In-Chief Katherine Viner. People believe things that are not true, and don’t believe things that are. I’ve had personal experience of this. And it is horrible.
- Being an NHS leader is very lonely. Never more so than when you are awake at 3am. People get in touch to congratulate you when something goes well. But when things go wrong, people you thought were friends seem to melt away.
- There is never enough time to think when you are running NHS services because of competing demands, often from those who are meant to be there to help you make improvements. But you must create time to think or you will make bad decisions.
- Filling senior vacancies in the NHS is getting harder. And we should worry about this. Because if we aren’t careful, the only ones who apply to be in the firing line will be those who don’t care what others think about them. And that would be very bad for all of us.
- We cannot separate leadership from mental health. In my opinion, people who experience mental illness from time to time can make exceptional leaders. It is only one thing about them. Plus, they develop skills through therapy that are invaluable – such as managing their own mood, listening really carefully, and not making assumptions about others.
- I have experienced depression off and on since the age of 15. A nurse said something damaging to me when I was 22 and vulnerable which I absorbed deep into my psyche. For the next 36 years I stigmatised myself, despite being an active campaigner against the stigma of mental illness. It was when I finally came out about my experiences that I was able to address my self-stigma. I have made many friends since then. But if only I had done it before, I could have been a better, more authentic leader.
- Mental illness messes with your head. It affects 1:4 of us. But 4:4 of us should care about it, not just on humanitarian and economic grounds, but because almost everyone can be affected. We are all on a spectrum of resilience, and if enough bad things happen to us, especially at a young age, most of us will experience post traumatic damage.
- When I appeared suddenly to get ill with an acute onset of depression in 2013, it was a culmination of things. My own susceptibility, but also workload, loneliness, weariness as I approached retirement, not taking care of myself, listening too hard to my own negative voices, and putting a lot of energy into maintaining a positive front. It wasn’t caused by internet trolls. But they didn’t help.
- So please don’t do what I did. Get to know yourself. Talk to yourself honestly about how you are. Talk to your loved ones. Take care. Be the best version of you, but make sure that it is you. And try always to see yourself as an improvement project – this makes it easier to accept criticism without it cutting you to your core. I’ve only learned this in the last few years, and it is a revelation!
- I am lucky. I have dear family and friends. And I got great care. I was able to go back to a job that I loved, which was a major part of my recovery. I know it isn’t the same for everyone.
- Since the summer of 2014 when I finally hung up my chief executive boots, I’ve been helping others in various ways to be the best version of themselves. And I’ve written a book which I hope you will read when it is published later this year.
As I finish this blog, I think of someone who embodies improvement in everything she does. The talented, compassionate and extremely resourceful Dr Kate Granger. Kate is currently in a hospice in what are probably the final stages of a rare and awful form of cancer. But as well as sharing the intimacies of her progress through terminal illness via her wonderful talks and social media, Kate has also revolutionised the NHS and other healthcare systems around the world with her #HelloMyNameIs campaign. She has written several books, and completed amazing things on her bucket list. And not content with that, Kate and her husband Chris Pointon are urging people to make donations to the Yorkshire Cancer Centre, a small charity that helps improve the quality of life of people living with cancer. You can donate here.
Kate and Chris demonstrate that being a leader isn’t a job, it is an attitude of mind. That anyone can make a difference if they focus on something that matters, turn a great idea into an innovation and build support for it through honest endeavour. We can all learn about improvement from them.
May you go well, both of you.
25 July 2016 postscript:
Chris has just posted on Twitter that his wonderful wife died yesterday peacefully in the arms of her family.
I only met Kate once. I will never forget her. She had an extraordinary stillness and presence. I hope the knowledge of the difference she has made and will continue to make for many years to come will sustain Chris and all who loved her in the difficult times ahead.
My heart goes out to all of you. May her lovely soul rest in peace.