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Authentic leadership


How is the health of leadership research? What is the prognosis for independent trainers and coaches? Few are better equipped to provide a diagnosis than professor Dame Sandra Dawson. In this exclusive interview, Mike Levy asks her about authentic leadership, the skills to make leaders ‘great’, and the future for leadership development.

Dame Sandra Dawson, a Cambridge professor of management at Judge Business School, recently headed a team to report into the scope and role of the nascent National Leadership Council for the NHS. The terms of reference for the National Leadership Council were certainly challenging: ‘To create a step change in the development of leadership across healthcare.’ Besides being a respected academic and teacher, Dawson has a formidable CV in the business world: a former non-executive director of Barclays plc, JP Morgan, Cambridge Econometrics and the Chair of an NHS Trust.

"You might think that in a recession we should revert to top-down authoritarian leadership styles. That is not right." - Dame Sandra Dawson

Whatever the background, any investigation into the management of the NHS is a monumental task. “The NHS is not just one organisation but in reality an eco-system of organisations,” says Dawson. Her team spent several months talking to NHS leaders at all levels – nurses, management professionals, doctors, therapists and more. She soon identified a significant leadership issue: the difficulty in encouraging potential leaders into the higher echelons of the NHS. “It seemed that with all the pressures on the NHS and its target-driven culture, there is less time given to career development – especially in terms of leadership,” observes Dawson. The pipeline of new people into leadership roles sometimes seemed blocked. Says Dame Sandra: “The big challenge is to align individual career goals and those of the organisation. These challenges cannot be addressed in a top-down way and new opportunities for leaders must be provided at a local and regional level.”

Are great leaders born or made?

This brings us to an old argument – can we create new leaders? Aren’t they born to the task? Dawson replies: “I don’t believe in the ‘all great leaders are born’ argument though we should not deny personality or genetics or the effect of one’s early years. We do know that leaders must be authentic – they cannot play act being someone else. However, the fit between the authentic self and the context in which he or she is working is crucial. We have observed that there is a greater need these days for a collaborative form of leadership – in the NHS, for example, many of those we need to enthuse and enable do not work directly for the service but operate in partner organisations at regional and local level.”

A leader must be able to work with other leaders and be true to him or herself. “Everyone has the capacity to develop new insights and develop new skills of leadership but they must be put in the context of the demands of the organisation,” says Dawson. Research into leadership, she observes, has a lot to say about these alignment issues and the way that leaders have to balance the pressures of their own styles and the needs of the organisation. She calls it, ‘leading in context.’ Authenticity is another key theme for her, “If you try to copy the leadership styles of others, it won’t work. I am a great believer in learning from and listening to others but not trying to become others.”

"If you try to copy the leadership styles of others, it won't work. I am a great believer in learning from and listening to others but not trying to become others." - Dame Sandra Dawson

So what is the essence of effective leadership? Dawson refers to her teaching at Judge Business School, “I always start by saying it is about relationships – you can’t do it alone in the boss’s office. Leadership is about the relationships you build. That said, performance is key – you can’t be a great leader in the abstract. Success or failure is the leader’s responsibility. Poor leadership will be seen in unusually high staff turnover, indices of productivity, poor innovation, falling market share – all the ways in which we measure the performance of organisations - and of course all this in terms of comparative performance with the competition.”

What's more important - soft skills or hard?

She typifies effective leadership as a balance between the ‘soft’ people skills in business with the ‘hard’ issues of business outcomes. There is no conflict here, she believes. “You might think that in a recession, we should revert to top-down authoritarian leadership styles. This is not right. In a downturn you need innovation more than ever. A good leader should encourage their team to contribute innovative ideas but within the context of marketing and productivity targets.” Professor Dawson believes that a good leader always asks: ‘what will inspire our best people to stay in the organisation and give their best – do more than the routine tasks set? That comes, she says, through pride in work and the relationships people build with others in their team, across boundaries and among customers/users.

Is there a new paradigm of leadership coming out of the research academies? “There is a lot of data but it has to be contextualised within the changing arenas in which leaders work. Current leadership thinking places a lot of emphasis on relationships and contexts. Leaders must deal with the productive tensions between those hard and soft skills.”

What does the future hold?

What of the future in leadership? “The next 50 years will require much more cross cultural training, understanding and development. You can run the smallest business these days and are likely to recruit people from the all over the world. It is also likely that you will be operating in international markets. The new generation of business leaders in India, China and Peru, for example, are bringing a very different view of leadership than those who have lived exclusively in the North Atlantic and the young have different approaches to those of their parents.”

There will be an important role for trainers and coaches, believes Dawson. “What I have said about the importance of personal authenticity coupled with business effectiveness is going to be a very rich area for coaches who can help potential leaders find their own voice and yet be effective within the context of their organisation. There have always been opportunities for proprietising good academic research - 360-degree feedback appraisal is an example."

Though new opportunities for TrainingZone readers abound, Dame Sandra does have a note of caution (or perhaps opportunity): “Increasingly client organisations are going to demand hard evidence of the success of your interventions. Targets and even league tables for coaches could be on the way.” You have been given a health warning.

Mike Levy is a freelance journalist, author, writing and presentations coach and can be contacted via

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