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Feeling objective – the true leadership test

Published on February 9, 2017

I guess now is as good a time as any to admit to a teenage crush on Harriet Walter. In the ‘70s, as Harriet Vane, the collaborator and then wife of amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, her diligence and care in their common cause of justice only enhanced the appeal of her cut glass accent and come hither eyes. But her role as the new Mother Superior in Nonatus House, the HQ of Call the Midwife, ended my unrequited yearnings. The perspicacity and collaborative spirit of Miss Vane have been superseded by cold ruthless efficiency in the name of the Order.

I’m not privy to the editorial meetings of Call the Midwife, but it occurred to me that the choice of storyline might be an attempt by the BBC to capture that part of the zeitgeist that is the crisis in the NHS (2016/17 vintage) – the need to be efficient and compliant while also being caring. This isn’t easy as was illustrated by the ensuing storylines such as Nurse Gilbert haring off to her next appointment without checking for carbon monoxide poisoning because she had to fit in more appointments.

Productivity, maximising outputs relative to inputs, can keep costs down but is not, never was nor ever shall be, heart-warming, inspirational or morale boosting. Nor is it the case that consideration – showing care, going the extra mile, getting round the rules to reach the obvious conclusion – will ever boost productivity. But it does win hearts. True leadership, in my opinion, manages to balance these two aspects – one of the heart, the other of the mind. This feat of mental gymnastics can be achieved by anyone in any situation where one can replace “because” with “despite”.

In ‘storyland’ Harriet saw the error of her ways and passed the baton back to her caring predecessor. Nurse Gilbert could spend a bit of extra time checking that everything was fine, despite the pressure of extra appointments. In the real world true leadership is much harder, as we see in Theresa May’s position with regard to the USA in general and Donald Trump in particular. Even though many of his orders bear signs of not being considerate – feeding the anger of those feeling dispossessed – the position of a true leader, in my opinion, is to work with him despite them, not to reject the USA, through rejection of its leader, because of them. We live in his world if we respond in kind.

It’s hard to stay kind when being challenged; it’s hard to improve productivity when the role is to care. What our Prime Minister seems to me to be doing is modelling the best type of leadership – objective empathy. Good businesses are increasingly being led in this way, where the boss appreciates that things are rarely black and white, that everyone has a point of view. The crux is to be able to hold different views and move the organisation forward. If it looks like views in your organisation are too far apart to achieve this then maybe it’s time to call your own type of midwife – non-execs, mentors and consultants – who should possess the leadership skills that guide people to reconcile their views rather than see them crushed. Because the alternative would be spiteful.