Last year a friend told me his employer was paying for him to go on a leadership course run by American Express. At least three thoughts entered my head in quick succession:
- Why? Do you want to get involved in politics?
- I guess it’s the kind of corporate junket where you go for a day off while someone writes meaningless lists with words like “vision”, “empowerment” and “thinking outside the box” on a flip chart, before everyone goes back to their office and carries on exactly the same as before.
- Doesn’t the charity you work for have better things to spend money on?
One year on, and I was on a leadership course myself. I found myself sitting with 19 other bright-eyed and bushy-tailed osteopaths at good old Osteopathy House. The course is one of the Osteopathic Development Group’s projects, and involves 2 workshop days in London (one at the start, one at the end), 25 hours of an e-learning course run by the Open University, to be completed over the Summer, and a small project where we work in a team of 4 with other osteopaths. If we complete the course we will be refunded about half of the cost, which is set at a modest £295 in any case. Why this generosity? Why, indeed, the need for a programme like this?
Osteopaths like their dead leaders
We were shown a picture of eight different leaders in osteopathy: some popular, some controversial, some in positions of power. There was Still, and Sutherland, and I think I saw John Wernham and Littlejohn. A few were even alive. Stuart Korth was there, as was Tim Walker (of the GOsC) and Maurice Cheng (of iO). Testament to Still’s leadership is the fact that over a hundred years on, the profession he founded is still alive and kicking. But we probably need living leaders too, and ones suited to the times. Some of those people I mentioned were remarkable pioneers, cutting wide swathes through virgin territory, and creating the paths we still follow along. But we are in a new terrain now; the former leaders haven’t always managed their succession, and so it seems that the Osteopathic Development Group want to find, develop and support “people with interest, enthusiasm and commitment to the profession” and who want to change it.
Those lists of jargon aren’t quite so meaningless
We split into small groups to discuss the characteristics of leaders we knew in osteopathy, and also to identify times we had shown leadership ourselves. Some found this difficult – sad to say our experiences in education and practice hadn’t left all of us with long lists of impressive people that we had to whittle down to one. For some, it was a case of casting about to find someone, anyone, who had inspired us with their leadership. Once we’d all got that person, we set about trying to identify what we so admired. We stumbled about looking for the right words to express what seemed to be their special, indefinable, leader-like qualities. There was that ability to see things no one else was able to, or the fact they had the imagination to see what was possible, or could see how something could be made to happen – mmm, we searched for the word, what could it be? Aha! VISION! Then there was the way they didn’t talk down to us, they encouraged us, they didn’t steal our glory, they gave us confidence in ourselves, mmm… what word could we use for that? We scratched our heads: “EMPOWERING OTHERS” I exclaimed triumphantly. Just the right phrase. Then there was the way they could think about things differently, they could come up with solutions no one else had thought of. Well, I might have come round to the leadership course but I couldn’t quite bring myself to write “THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX” on my list. I quietly substituted “lateral thinker”.
Leadership and management are totally different things
As my only previous leadership training was at the age of 13 when I read the humorous book-of-the-musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” (first published 1953), I had a somewhat distorted idea of leadership. To be fair it contained some absolute gems:
The primary use of research is to prove your point
Beware of creative people – they are sure to give you trouble
Junior executives should cultivate a moustache – it will add years and a look of sly cunning
But it led me to believe that leadership was about schmoozing and conniving your way up the greasy pole until you had a big office with a booze cabinet and a secretary and could call the shots (i.e. not a path I was ever likely to tread, and maybe a path more suited to leadership in 1953.) I discovered on the course that we all have our own style of leading. It’s not about being top of a hierarchy, it’s not about having authority over others, it’s about being passionate enough to want something to happen, and being able to bring other people with you. “PASSION!” – another one for the list.
Luckily, there are some seriously impressive people you’ve never heard of quietly making changes and forging new paths in osteopathy. In my little group alone there was someone who’d made a major change to their college’s modus operandi, finding a way to significantly upskill the students and enable them to include a naturopathic consultation as part of their clinical training. And this far-from-easy achievement while he was in the third year. Another had enabled a course in research to continue, through a bit of hard graft and ingenuity and a lot of persuading people. Michael Mehta, who was on the leadership programme last year, has set up a special interest group for osteopaths interested in the performing arts. Osteopathy doesn’t lack people with bright ideas and commitment. I could feel the passion in the room.
So we’ve been sent off to spend the Summer contemplating leadership and completing our e-learning course. I am noticing leaders and leadership issues everywhere now: in the family, in football, in politics, in school. I am reassured that leadership skills can be learnt, and usually are. It’s not about bossing people around and knowing exactly what to do. It’s more subtle than that – there are things I might already be able to do, like being able to read situations and understand what is needed. Leadership can be about communicating well, not blaming people, understanding people’s motivations and even about seeking advice and allowing others to take a lead. It’s an interesting way to reevaluate what you are doing in life and in your career.
The Lao-Tsu Quote
Just as every celebrity has an obligatory statue of Buddha in their home, every course now seems to contain a Lao-Tsu quote, so here is the leadership programme’s quote. Being somewhat shy and retiring, I just love this notion of leadership:
A leader is best
When people barely know he exists
Not so good when people obey and acclaim him
Worse when they despise him
But of a good leader, who talks little
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled
They will say
We did it ourselves