Does Clinical Leadership Make a Difference and how do you Develop Clinical Leaders?

ROO_0213I’m being asked about what makes effective leadership development, so here is a summary of what works! The next blog is a case study of the London Darzi Fellowship as an example.

The Impact of Clinical Leadership

Basically where there is good clinical leadership organisational performance is good – people get a better deal.

The importance of clinical leadership for healthcare change has been well described (Swanwick and McKimm, 2011, Edmonstone, 2009, Wilson et al., 2013, Malby et al., 2013). The direction of travel is clear, and to an extent this has been an ideological movement (healthcare quality will be improved and costs reduced if clinicians are at the heart of decision-making). However there is emerging evidence of the beneficial impact of clinical leadership. Kirpatrick et al (2007) conducted a National Inquiry into the relationship between management and medicine. This identified that Clinical-management engagement is often associated with a) improved productivity (through the redesign of clinical work) – Degeling et al (2003); b) enhanced capacity for change and innovation (Fitzgerald and Ferlie 2006). A number of studies have found that poor performance and clinical failure were linked in part to a ‘disconnect’ between medicine and management (Healthcare Commission 2006, Mannion et al 2005). Many have also identified a positive link between effective clinical leadership and improved patient care. There is then some evidence to suggest that improving the capacity of doctors and managers to co-produce services will add value in the system.” (p 5)

A subsequent review conducted by the Faculty of Medical Leadership and Management, The King’s Fund and the Center for Creative Leadership (West et al 2015) showed the importance of leadership in the health service. The review concluded that ‘There is clear evidence of the link between leadership and a range of important outcomes within health services, including patient satisfaction, patient mortality, organisational financial performance, staff well-being, engagement, turnover and absenteeism, and overall quality of care

Veronisi et al (2013) found a significant and positive association between a higher percentage of clinicians on boards and the quality ratings of service providers, especially where doctors are concerned ‘This positive influence is also confirmed in relation to lower morbidity rates and tests to exclude the possibility of reverse causality (doctors joining boards of already successful organisations).

Overall it is now clear that high organisational performance results when good clinical engagement occurs, and higher quality care results from strong clinical leadership (Dellve et al., 2018; Reinstern et al 2008, NICS 2003).

Clinical Leadership Development

Having recognised the need for and benefits of clinical leadership, the next issue has been the readiness of the clinical professions to take on these roles. Whilst the attitude to leadership has changed, and whilst clinicians are taking up roles that embrace leadership, their development for these roles is less robust.

Leadership development and management development has long been embedded in nursing career development, and is increasingly common in medical careers (with intercalated degrees that include management). However many hospitals have little or no management or leadership development for their consultants, or directorate leads, and that is mirrored in primary care where opportunities for GPs to develop these skills has been sparse. The readiness of medicine mirrors the early ambivalence, and sometimes vociferous opposition of the profession to integrating management into its practice. As attitudes changes the development of the profession in terms of management and leadership skills has fallen behind. This is partly because the profession has taken time to realise that management and leadership isn’t straightforward ‘common sense’. Many stories of the early days of CCGs are told where GPs believed that running their own small business was adequate preparation for committing public resources through commissioning.

No matter what the causalities the reality remains that:

…consultants rarely receive leadership training and might experience problems with the transition into management roles, particularly in relation to conflicts with their other responsibilities to patients, colleagues and life outside work.’ Lewis 2013

Successful reshaping of local health systems depends heavily on the leadership of clinicians, working with partners in social care. But clinicians are rarely trained in the major change management skills they need for the task. Moreover, they get little career support for challenging perceived boundaries between clinical and management roles. Consequently the systems leadership roles where clinicians can make such a big difference may not appear to them as attractive or feasible career opportunities.’ NHS 2016

In fact according to Edmonstone (2009) “no systematic and structured national leadership development provision for doctors existed prior to 2001-2002” (p 210).

The Darzi Fellowship programme (resulting from the 2008 Darzi review) originally for doctors and now for all the clinical professions, in its 10th year is the longest standing programme for developing clinical leaders in London. It demonstrates the value of investing in clinical leadership development (Malby and Mervyn 2017).

Leadership in high performing health systems is distributed (Denis et al 2011) and therefore in focusing on clinical leadership development for the future, the model of development should not just be for senior leaders but for the full range of clinical leaders, working at multiple levels and in multidisciplinary teams contributing to securing quality healthcare for all. This is supported by West et al (2015) report on leadership in the NHS which states that successful organisations are “leader-ful” not just “well led”.

In addressing clinical leadership effectiveness organisations need to provide clinical leadership in an integrated multidisciplinary model across all levels of organisational decision-making.

Effective Clinical Leadership Development Programmes

Of course effective clinical leadership development has many of the characteristics of any effective leadership development programme. The difference is the context in which clinical professionals join a leadership programme (the dominant role of expertise in the profession; the lack of prior leadership and management development in training).

At its heart any clinical leadership development programme needs to be based on the best intelligence about adult learning. This is the bedrock.


Adult Learning

Adult learners require far more than just information; they require a myriad of teaching technologies. These adult learning principles to the design of our programme (Knowles 1984):

  • Adults need to know why they are learning something
  • Adults learn through doing
  • Adults are problem-solvers
  • Adults learn best when the subject is of immediate use

Effective adult learning programs use double loop learning methodology based on for example Kolb’s experiential learning framework (Kolb 1984), and support continued learning and development through learning communities such as action learning sets so that participants ‘learn how to learn’, and have a deeper sets of alternative ideas and behaviours from which to choose to act (Schon 1987).

Effective Leadership Development

West et al. (2015, p 3) found that across levels of leadership development programmes – individual, task-based, team, organisational, national “…there is little robust evidence for the effectiveness of specific leadership development programmes”. However there are reappearing themes such as self-awareness and personal reflection, communication, teamwork, leadership styles, a support network, duration of one year and experiential learning, in studies of the learning impact of Leadership Development (LD) programmes. (Strawn et al., 2017; Tsyganenko, 2014, Pradarelli et al., 2016,).

In a review of Leadership development programmes Edmonstone (2013 p 537) proposed the following common design principles for effective leadership development programmes:

  • “Starting with ‘what is’
  • Focusing on the end-point
  • Real time, real work, real people
  • Explicitness about underlying values
  • Addressing system-wide issues
  • Embedding development with core business
  • Embracing diversity
  • Addressing sustainability

Effective Leadership Development Principles and Practices

Overall the evidence suggests that any Clinical Leadership Programme needs to include the following:

  1. Adult learning methods in understanding distributed leadership, systems and how they work, power, approaches to quality, change management, collaborative decision-making. This means an inclusive, collaborative approach to learning events (workshops) with little didactic learning.
  2. Skills development in working with diversity and conflict, negotiation, personal resilience, change practices for wicked and tame problems, inquiry, critical analysis, reflection, learning to live with uncertainty, and working with people and communities as assets.
  3. Organisational application – a real piece of leadership change work where the clinical leader can practice their new knowledge and skills, and learn through doing and reflection, and peer review with colleagues in an action-learning approach.
  4. Clear mentorship of the clinical leader in their own organisation as they learn to apply their new learning in practice, providing air cover for the clinical leader to experiment with new skills and practices.
  5. Leading as peers – using the clinical leadership learning group as the case material for understanding how to work as clinical peers in a distributed leadership model.
  6. Personal Leadership application – knowledge development supported in its application by coaching.
  7. System mentorship to support ongoing careers and sustainability of the programme learning.
  8. Opportunities to build networks for personal development and support beyond the programme, and in support of the organizational change effort they are leading.


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