How can health services shift from operating on a “burning platform”, where crisis and fear rule, to a “burning ambition” environment, which encourages reflection, collaboration and innovation?

Good leadership is critical to making this shift, according to prominent management consultant Dr Peter Fuda, who will be a keynote speaker at the forthcoming Health Workforce Australia conference, to be held in Adelaide from November 18-20.

As previously mentioned, health policy analyst Jennifer Doggett will cover the conference for the Croakey Conference Reporting Service.

Below she reports on an interview with Dr Fuda, in which he says that good leadership is not about exerting maximum control, it is about creating a context for others to be successful.


What does successful leadership look like in health?

Jennifer Doggett writes:

Dr Peter Fuda has one major problem with 99% of books written about leadership.

“Most literature on leadership focuses on the attributes of great leaders and tells readers what personal qualities they need to achieve success,” he says. “The problem with this is that in real life there are no leaders who live up to this image. Out of the hundreds of leaders I met in my professional life, not one of them would fit the image of ‘the leader’ described in most leadership books.”

As an international leadership expert, Dr Fuda has spent his career helping CEOs and leaders from all sectors – including multinational corporations, universities, not-for-profits and community-based organisations – achieve their aims through improving the way in which they lead their organisations. 

Appearing on November 20 as a keynote speaker at the Health Workforce Australia Conference 2013, he will bring insights from his research and experience to discuss how health sector managers can become great leaders.

Dr Fuda’s starting point for looking at leadership issues is the disconnect between the intent and the reality of most people’s professional lives.

“The majority of people wake up every working day with noble intentions,” he says.  “This is particularly the case in the health system which attracts some of the most dedicated and altruistic people of any profession.  You don’t go into nursing or community health work to make a quick million.  Most people chose to work in this area because they want to do good, rather than simply for personal gain.

“However, the challenge is that success in achieving these aims often has nothing to do with the noble intentions of leaders and their staff but rather with the actual impact of their actions, both internally and externally. This often differs widely from their original intentions, causing confusion and frustration for them and the people they lead.

“My role in advising business and organisational leaders is to get them to focus on some key questions such as: What impact would you like to have?  What would you like to motivate others to achieve?

“Often what we find is that there is a gap between what leaders say they want and what they actually motivate their team to achieve.  For example, many leaders say want collaboration but then adopt a leadership style that encourages greater competition, which undermines any prospect of collaborative activity.”

In his work within the health sector, including advising the National Health Service in the UK, Dr Fuda has observed that many health services need to shift from what he calls a ‘burning platform’ or a crisis and fear-driven environment to imperative for change to a ‘burning ambition’ environment which encourages reflection, collaboration and innovation.

He says:

“A burning platform is one leadership technique but it is a bad one because ultimately it is unproductive.  It creates an environment in which people are risk averse and reluctant to engage with others and pursue collaboration.  In my address at the HWA Conference I will focus on how health leaders can move away from the ‘burning platform’ approach to create a ‘burning ambition’ within their organisations and achieve lasting change and innovation. 

In the health sector, as in other areas, there is limited time and limited resources.  Only the things that really matter can get done.  There is also a high level of change and unpredictability.  This is what Colin Powell calls a VUCA world – one characterised by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.  In this world, traditional leadership skills do not work and effective leaders need to develop new skills.  

These include being able to manage the swinging pendulum between control and chaos.  A leader needs to control some key aspects of an organisation, for example, they need to ensure sound financial management of the company. However, they also need to provide their teams with enough freedom to support innovation, creativity and commitment.

In this changing world, good leadership is not about exerting maximum control, it is about creating a context for others to be successful.   It’s about getting smart people to share their truth in a way that means everyone within the organisation gets smarter. 

In my presentation at the Health Workforce Australia conference I look forward to inspiring and challenging health leaders to create organisations in which their aspirations and their impact is aligned – organisations in which employees don’t have to leave their noble intentions at the front door when they come to work in the morning.”

• Dr Peter Fuda is an international leadership expert and author of the book Leadership Transformed.  He is appearing at the Health Workforce Australia Conference, which brings together local and international leaders sharing best practices, knowledge and expertise in workforce innovation.

Registrations for the conference close 8 November.

• You can track Croakey’s coverage of the conference here.


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