Neil Calderwood is a final year medical student at Brighton and Sussex Medical School. When I was studying in Brighton he was always passionately campaigning for universal access to healthcare so when I caught up with him at Leaders In Healthcare 2018 last week I really wanted him to share his reflections with Medical Leadership in the Foundation Years.
Prior to last week, I thought ‘leadership’ was for managerial and senior positions, not for day to day life as a medical student or junior doctor. Moreover, pursuing a role in leadership or management looked as appealing as French-kissing a camel. This view shouldn’t be surprising, given the negative reception that these positions often seem to receive. In workplaces, managerial input is frequently met with scorn, whilst well known leaders commonly attract extraordinary hatred (I recently watched a papier-mâché Theresa May explode to rapturous applause at my local bonfire night). What is surprising then, is finding myself in Birmingham attending this year’s Leaders in Healthcare conference. I went for two reasons. Firstly, the programme of speakers and sessions struck me as very interesting, which proved to be the case. Secondly, there’s a hefty discount for medical students, so I felt like I was getting a bargain. What I didn’t bargain for was a complete change in my perspective (about leadership, not camels). I’ve been convinced that developing leadership is vital, not only for me, but for everyone, and especially medical students.
Before I explain why, I want to briefly explain what I learned about leadership itself. If I had been asked previously to imagine leadership in action, I’d have thought of inspirational speeches delivered on podiums by charismatic authority figures. This thought is one of the reasons I couldn’t see myself as a leader. I feel as charismatic as a goldfish, as inspirational as wet socks and I consider public speaking in the same way that a three-legged deer considers crossing a motorway in a snowstorm. At the conference, however, leadership was described in terms that make it possible for all of us to take forward. It begins with personal reflection to understand our own core values, be they justice, diversity, honesty, family, excellence, collaboration, innovation and so on. These form the foundation from which leadership emerges as we navigate our lives and carry out our roles, shaping our behaviours, interactions and decisions. With respect for others, we can display and promote our values in all that we do, creating influence in our wake. For example, simply ensuring each patient gets a warm smile and clear introduction will encourage others to follow suit. By virtue of setting a standard, when we express the best of ourselves, we demonstrate leadership. In everyday scenarios, we are all potential leaders.
But why is it so important? And how much of a difference can we make in the early stages of our career? According to the reports of Francis and Keogh, which respectively reviewed the failings at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust and hospital trusts with higher than expected mortalities, the leadership of junior doctors is hugely significant. The nature of job rotations means that junior doctors, like medical students, can make comparisons between and within hospitals, enabling us to recognise suboptimal healthcare and become social agents of change. In addition to improving patient care, uniting our values with our working practice improves our own satisfaction, extending benefits to team culture and staff retention. However, as described by Megan Reitz in her excellent keynote Speaking Truth to Power, standing up for our values is not always easy. Alongside protected space to raise valid concerns and suggestions, strengthening our leadership abilities can help us to successfully approach the tricky conversations that are needed.
It’s impossible for me to truly summarise ‘leadership’ or its merits here and I’ve not delved into the details of how to go about it. There are workshops, books and videos to explore that further. Instead, I hope that sharing my experience will inspire others to start considering their own pursuit of understanding and practicing leadership. Healthcare services and medical education are continually evolving. This provides opportunities at every stage of our training to engage with and contribute towards developments. We all have values and experience worth sharing and good leadership gives us the tools to translate these into improvements. The Leaders in Healthcare conference opened my eyes to these concepts and demonstrated how much there is to learn and gain for the sake of future patients and colleagues. Aside from boosting my growth as a doctor and citizen, the conference was also an immensely interesting insight into changes, challenges and leaders across healthcare, so I wholeheartedly recommend it to all. Leadership is for everyone, not just for podiums and bonfires.