The challenges of leading clever people and of motivating workplaces subject to constant change were much-discussed at a recent Health Workforce Australia conference in Adelaide.

Jennifer Doggett reports:

“I could listen to him for hours,” said one enthusiastic delegate at the Health Workforce Australia Conference after the presentation by leadership expert Dr Peter Fuda.

“He’s given me so much inspiration and practical advice to take away and share with my workplace. It’s not just having the enthusiasm and energy, it’s also knowing that there are practical tools to support me in my work in the health sector.”

This sentiment was shared by another delegate from the Indigenous health sector who said: “Peter has really captured the passion that so many of us working in Indigenous health feel for our work.  It’s so positive to hear how we can use this passion to improve the support and services we provide to our community.”

One of the highlights of Dr Fuda’s presentation commented on by a number of delegates was an animated video which demonstrated graphically the transition from a burning platform style of leadership – driven by crisis and panic – to a burning ambition style where people are motivated by shared goals and passions.

This video can be accessed on his website at (see the clip on right, titled ‘Fire Metaphor Animation’.)

Also resonating with the audience at HWA2013 was the advice provided by Dr Fuda on dealing with the current reform environment in the health sector.

In responding to a question about how organisations can deal with major changes, he said: “When looking at major changes, first work out the why.  Why are these changes important? In my experience if people work out why, they can generally work out the how.  It’s when people don’t understand or agree on the ‘why’ that problems occur.”

On dealing with people (and groups of people) who don’t want to change or who are resistant to proposed reforms, Dr Fuda’s advice is to be more empathetic and understanding. He said:

“When people undermine or sabotage reforms it’s important to realise that their aggression comes from a place of fear and anxiety. The best tactic to deal with this is to have empathy and understanding.  Understand what motivates them.  Once you find this out you will have the ability to make the change happen.”

(You can read more about Dr Fuda’s work in this previous Croakey post.)

Motivating clever people

Another challenge of leadership in the health sector was highlighted at HWA 2013 by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones from the London Business School.

Their sessions ‘Leading Clever People’ and ‘Authentic leadership and authentic organisations’ focused on how health leaders can create an environment where talented clinicians, policy makers and researchers can contribute to the full extent of their ability.

Goffee and Jones argued that leading clever people was essential to modern health leadership as the current challenges faced by healthcare systems worldwide require innovative solutions.

To find these solutions, leaders need to successfully motivate clever people and focus their energies on these issues.

They described managing clever people as a ‘thankless task’ but outlined a number of ways to motivate ’clever’ individuals within a workplace.

These included giving them ‘a high degree of autonomy and recognition and a low level of structure’.

However, they also stressed the importance of tailoring these to each individual – for example, recognition should not be generic but tailored to reflect each person’s values and needs.

In answer to ‘how do you lead clever individuals?’, Jones said you need to: “acknowledge their knowledge (or talent), win resources and give them space, provide opportunities for external recognition, recruit other clever people, encourage failure (as this breeds a culture of innovation – “You can’t do clever new things without things going wrong”), be an umbrella (in the sense of protecting employees) and be accessible to them.”

Goffee also added that one of the major challenges of leading clever people was to distinguish the truly ‘clever’ ideas from those that may appear clever but in reality are crazy.

Delegates reported enjoying the session, and agreed that some of the main challenges with ‘clever’ people are they are ‘destructive, self-important, and difficult to keep engaged’.

Therefore, to successfully lead ‘clevers’ you need strong emotional intelligence, flexibility in management and to recognize what drives each individual. Delegates also said that it is important to look after ‘non clevers’ in teams so they don’t feel overshadowed.

Leadership in nursing

Some practical examples of leadership in action were outlined at another session on “New leadership models shaping the face of nursing”.

At this session, panel members Dr David Panter, CEO, Central Adelaide Local Health Network, Alison Kitson, Dean of School of Nursing, University of Adelaide, and Lydia Dennett, Chief Nurse and Midwifery Officer, SA Health, discussed the way nursing leadership models work with patient-centred models of care.

David Panter described the appointment of two Executive Directors of Nursing at the Royal Adelaide hospital and how this had led to an increase in the numbers of single rooms for patients.

Single rooms have been found to promote a faster recovery and discharge and also improve patient and family satisfaction with care.  However, it was leadership from the Executive Directors of Nursing that was critical in driving this change at Royal Adelaide.

Dr Panter said that having two nursing leaders was important as it means that two skill sets are brought to the role and both have input into strategic decision –making and workforce issues.

This was reinforced by Lydia Dennett, who emphasised that after nine months in their roles, there was clearly a range of benefits to both roles.  She stressed that their position does not undermine the Chief Nurse of Nursing and Midwife role but in fact it does the opposite by strengthening policy implementation at the hospital.

From the Chief Nurse perspective, having two Executive Directors of Nursing is important as it brings double the experience and knowledge to the role, which ensures policy can be translated into practice.

Lydia Dennett also stressed the importance of nursing leadership in paving the way for the future nursing workforce.

She said: “The physical design of the new hospital in Adelaide will drive change in regards to job design and workforce composition and knock on to education and training pipelines.” This includes addresses issues such as the lack of dedicated spaces for allied health in hospitals, despite the fact that multi-disciplinary teams are needed throughout the hospital.

Alison Kitson agreed with the need to ‘focus on the nursing pipeline’ in nursing leadership.  She stressed the need to support graduate nurses to maintain their enthusiasm for their job after 15 years in their roles, saying, “we want the bright eyed new nurses to still be committed to patient-centred care and be able to be like this 15 years later”.

She sees the new leadership model as an opportunity to retain nurses in the workforce “by creating a work environment where nurses can practise what they have been taught and trained to do – to care”.

Overall, HWA2013 provided current and future health leaders with a wide range of expertise, advice and practical assistance to support them in their role and to meet the current challenges facing our health system.

As one delegate from a rural health organisation put it on the final day: “I’m looking forward to going home now and putting all these new ideas into practice.  I never realised how important being a good leader was, not just for today but to help my team prepare our community to meet our future health care needs.”


Some of the tweet-reporting


And nice to see a speaker giving Twitter feedback to the audience (usually it is the other way around).

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




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