Born leaders – you need to regress to progress

This blog originally featured on Third Force News.


The leadership industry offers numerous theoretical frameworks and models, ranging from the instructional to the inspirational. The majority of these models are focused on external factors and offer up-skilling and progression as a solution to overcoming leadership challenges. But is this enough?

After spending 2016 as a Clore Social Leadership Fellow, I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but with the knowledge that I have gained from that intense fellowship year and reflecting on my 15 years of working towards social justice I offer this: leadership should be more about regression than progression.

The chances are we probably once had many of the qualities that would make us a strong leader, but we have lost or forgotten them. Perhaps more concerning, we might have learned not to value them as we should. We need to tap into our inner-child and re-learn the qualities that childhood gifted us, and value them as leadership traits.

Key to this is our curiosity. I’m sure none of our parents expected to give birth to pint-sized Paxman’s but this is what many of them got. “Do the trees make the wind?”, “Do they close the roads to switch on all the cats eyes?”, “where is my soul?”, and of course, “Where do babies come from?”. As children we’re naturally curious about the world around us, and less willing to accept things at face value.

The circle of why is a phenomenon that delights curious young minds and frustrates parents in equal measure. Yet at some point we learned to be less curious. “Why?” Because the very question became annoying and it stopped eliciting the responses that we liked.

Research shows that our questioning drops off dramatically after the age of five, suggesting that schools have a role to play here too. I remember from my own experience that school rewarded the children who knew the answer, not asked the best questions, and this pattern of rewarding answers over questions continues into our professional life.

So, what’s stopping us being more curious as adults? Potentially lots of things! Have you ever heard it quipped that there’s “no such thing as stupid questions, just stupid people”? Asking questions can cause us to be perceived as naive or ill-informed. Asking a question might feed our imposter syndrome, or we could risk letting our demigod masks slip in front of those who we want to see us as strong and all knowing – so they can trust us to lead them.

But without leaders asking why, what if, and how, we stifle our creativity and, at best, are doomed to tweak existing behaviours, programmes and ideas, and at worst repeat the mistakes of the past. If we’re to lead the change that we seek, then it’s critical that we think differently, and maintain a curious approach to everything we do, and everyone we do it with.

I started doing this a few years ago, particularly in relation to who I work with. It’s now habitual for me to be more curious soon after appointment to get to know my new colleagues more closely. I start with two questions. First I ask “what matters to you?”.

Beyond an interview environment and trying to impress the new boss, I aim to get to know my new colleagues more personally. I talk about what matters to me, and give the example of walking my dogs at lunch times, hoping to give them permission to share what matters to them and how we can fit work in to their life.

I also ask them to tell me about their favourite line-manager (or sometimes their least favourite – depending how mischievous I’m feeling). This gives me an idea of how they do/don’t like to be managed and supported. This curiosity is simple, but it has had a big impact on my relationships with colleagues and helps me to create an environment in which we can all thrive.

I’m also more curious in circumstances and conversations where I disagree. In the spirit of curiosity, I have become better at listening to understand, rather than listening ready to challenge with my own view.

What else could we relearn to be better leaders? My next blog will look at other child-like qualities we undervalue as adults.

Mark Kelvin is programme director at the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland (the ALLIANCE) and a 2016 Clore Fellow.

Debate about future of Social Care is Vital

Social work and social care are not valued enough and neither is there enough anger about the poor outcomes experienced by disabled people and unpaid carers says Lynn Williams, Unpaid Carer.

I was very privileged to have the opportunity to speak at the recent ALLIANCE event focussing on the recent Audit Scotland report “Social Work in Scotland”.  Read More “Debate about future of Social Care is Vital”

Co-production Week Scotland

Co-production Week Scotland 2016, running from the 14th – 20th November, highlights the co-production approach, shares the vision for co-production in Scotland and celebrates examples of it in practice on a local and a national level.

This week Ashleigh de Verteuil, Policy and Information Intern – People Powered Health and Wellbeing and Dementia Carer Voices at the ALLIANCE, provides a snapshot of where we are with co-production in health and social care across Scotland.

Co-production. Either love the word, or hate the word, it is increasingly being recognised as the transformational change health and social care services need. Auditor General Caroline Gardner has backed the use of co-production at a local level across Scotland as a means to better recognising what works for people in health and social care.

Giving evidence to the Public Audit and Post-Legislative Scrutiny Committee on Audit Scotland’s recent NHS in Scotland 2016 report, Ms Gardner responded to questioning by Gail Ross MSP by noting that some NHS Boards were involving people by “not just consulting on plans but involving people in developing those plans.”  She also noted that the NHS in Scotland “can’t do too much of that”.

In an online survey which 60 health and social care professionals completed, we asked ‘how important should using a co-production approach in your role be?’

copro-ashPPHW Survey: Health and Social Care Staff’s response for the importance of using a co-production approach

The survey presented a situation where professionals at a strategic and frontline level are at the early stages of adopting co-production approaches, and feel as if they are making progress, but acknowledge that they face a number of barriers to developing their engagement further.

And that’s exactly what People Powered Health and Wellbeing want to tackle, to help embed co-production approaches across Health and Social Care Partnerships. This would result in shifting the balance of power, to enable people with long term conditions and disabilities to be recognised as experts in their own health.

Results from PPHW survey also showed that respondents identified access to online examples of good practice as a helpful means of support, as well as co-production masterclasses, training conferences and events. They also identified the potential for practical development and consultancy support. The ALLIANCE can, therefore, play a key role as a hub for co-production work; producing materials and tools, sharing information, news and good practice, and brokering and supporting links between practitioners.



The Roots of Democratic Culture – Lisa Curtice

The Roots of Democratic Culture

You know the feeling. The meeting feels stuck. One person keeps making the same point, only more vociferously, another insists on bringing up something else just as the Chair tries to move the agenda on.  The rest have switched off and stopped trying to participate. Decisions are postponed and power relationships are reinforced.

Read More “The Roots of Democratic Culture – Lisa Curtice”

A Sense of Belonging – Jo McFarlane

In this poem Jo highlights growing levels of inequality across Scotland. The recent Academy thinkpiece “The Right to Health” considered health inequalities across Scotland and how to tackle them.

In “A Sense of Belonging” Jo urges us all to not leave tackling inequalities to the politicians and managers. We all have a responsibility for social justice and we all have a stake in a healthy, flourishing Scotland.

Read More “A Sense of Belonging – Jo McFarlane”

Podcast: Courageous Leadership – “Walking The Journey With Others”

How can courageous leadership support health and social care integration?

In the latest Academy podcast we hear directly from Anne Houston, Director of Coaching for Life Limited, who is an experienced facilitator of leadership development programmes, to consider how leadership can encourage transformational change.  Anne offers us her thoughts on the conditions required to put these principles at the forefront and how leadership can be enabling of others within the new landscape.

Read More “Podcast: Courageous Leadership – “Walking The Journey With Others””

The Courage to Cede Power

Has Scotland missed an enormous opportunity to have the expertise of some of the 2 million voices of users feed into the DNA of the new Health and Social Care Integrated Joint Boards?

In common, it appears, with most of Scotland’s national and local politicians, I had accepted that the obligation to have one third sector member, one carer member and one service user member on each of the new boards ensures the voice of the ‘customer’ is built into the new structure. Read More “The Courage to Cede Power”

“None of us is better than all of us”.

At the ‘2 Million Expert Voices’ ALLIANCE conference on 23rd May the afternoon brought a panel and Q&A session based on the Five Provocations for the Future of Health and Social Care. These have been generated through cross-sectoral discussion groups tasked to consider what is needed to transform Scottish society so that all citizens are able to thrive. The provocations are: courageous leadership; nurturing transformation; target culture; emphasising humanity and ceding power (see The three panel members each focused on a different provocation in their talks.

Jackie Maceira, convener of the Scottish Disability Equality Forum, illustrated the importance of emphasising humanity when he described his experience of applying for self-directed support not for personal care but for a personal assistant so that he could remain involved and active in the community. He was taking an approach that was considered somewhat novel, trying to do things in a flexible way to achieve what was meaningful. Barriers that arose around which category to ‘put’ him in, or “but we don’t do it that way” were subsequently overcome, a social worker represented his request to the panel and ultimately he received the personal assistance. Jackie’s message of hope was that life-changing outcomes can be achieved when there is an emphasis on humanity.

Judith Robertson, Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, addressed the issue of nurturing transformation, pointing out that people need to know what their rights are in order to assert them and hold duty bearers to account; something we need to work on in Scotland. Judith reflected that often there are individuals within services doing things as we want them to be done, but in order for this to spread and become the norm it is vital that those people and their positive practices are truly valued and nurtured. As Eleanor Roosevelt said “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home…”.

Oliver Escobar, Director of What Works Scotland, took both courageous leadership and ceding power as the prompts for his talk, although he highlighted that ‘ceding’ power might also be seen as ‘sharing’ power… or even creating power by involving 2 million experts. Oliver emphasised the need for a shift from an ethos of individual, ‘heroic’ leadership to recognition that the best leadership is collective, with facilitators bringing together people who need to have difficult conversations. Grassroots community work alone is not enough, he stressed; those at strategic level need to be engaged in order to influence investment, aid decision-making and effect transformational change on a large scale. Oliver advocated devolution to a local level and not only the participation of lobbies but actively seeking the voice of the seldom heard. An overarching theme was the need to move from seeing health and social care integration as a question of services to seeing it as a matter of power, politics and democracy.

Questions from the attendees stimulated discussion and comments about the politics of partnership, the importance of those providing a service having knowledge about human rights, and the view from Oliver that sometimes those collaborations which involve constructive conflict can actually be the most productive. The role of advocacy for individuals was a recurrent theme in people’s stories, with one person’s reminder that even those who are empowered and capable of defending their human rights can be just exhausted by it. Tokenism and overuse of jargon were cited as barriers to participation, while positive examples from as far afield as Melbourne and West Dunbartonshire were presented to illustrate willingness to cede power and do things in a different way.

Take-home messages for me? Particular challenges may include the necessary culture shift described by Judith – maintaining accountability but moving away from a culture of blame and defensive practice and towards a culture of looking for learning. I would argue that much work can be done in the early years, in schools and in parenting support to nurture such a culture. Opportunities for doing things differently are ripe in Scotland right now, with developments such as the new Mental Health Strategy and the work of the Integration Joint Boards. Above all, I was reminded of the power of collective action by Jackie’s “None of us is better than all of us”.

Audit Scotland: Changing models of health and social care

Audit Scotland’s recent report on changing models of health and social care revealed concerns that a lack of leadership and clear planning is preventing the wider change urgently needed if Scotland’s health and social care services are to adapt to increasing pressures.  The ALLIANCE, in association with the Health and Social Care Academy and Audit Scotland, is hosting a session on 18 May 2016 to debate the implications for the third sector and how we quicken the pace of change.  The session will also be an opportunity to discuss the relationship between Audit Scotland and the third sector and how we can work together on a range of issues.

12.30-13.00         Networking lunch
13.00-13.10         Introduction to the workshop
13.10-13.30         Changing models of Health and Social Care – Audit Scotland report
13.30-13.45         Case study
13.45-14.00         Questions
14.00-14.15         Refreshment break
14.15-15.15         Discussion Session:

  • Implications for the Third Sector?
  • How do we increase the pace of change?
  • How can we work with Audit Scotland to shift some of the barriers to change.

15.15-15.30         Closing remarks

To register for the event please email