Why younger clinicians fear becoming leaders

There’s been an awakening to the importance of investing in developing emerging leaders in recent years. I think we’ve seen it in many walks of life, and it’s been echoed in healthcare, both in the UK and internationally. But experienced leaders need to change how we come across if more people are to step up into leadership.

"Everyone assumes I'm straining at the leash to become a leader, but frankly I'm pretty scared about it all"

 

That was a recently qualified GP I chatted to last week. She had recently joined a new practice and had been welcomed as something of a shining hope by colleagues. Within a few days it was clear that people were looking to her to bring fresh perspective, ideas and energy to a tired team. And in spite of her genuine enthusiasnm and wealth of new ideas, she said she’s “pretty scared about it all” – and looked it. 

In my experience, her response is far from unusual. Over the past few years I’ve had the chance to work with the Next Generation GP leadership development community. So far over 2,000 early career GPs with a passion for leadership have joined a year-long programme of evening seminars aimed at encouraging and equipping them for leadership.

Early career leadership development network. nextgenerationgp.co.uk

It’s fantastic spending time with positive people with so many ideas and so much enthusiasm for improving healthcare. Yet there’s always a negative – despite their positivity, most of these younger clinicians are full of apprehension, frustration and even fear about the prospect of being a leader.

As we begin a programme with each cohort of 20-80 aspiring leaders, we ask how they feel about being a leader. The majority of responses are negative. Each year, in each part of the country. Even among people who’ve chosen to take time out to grow their leadership abilities, the dominant feeling about leadership is fear.

Chatting with these younger GPs, a clear picture emerges about why most of their feelings about leadership are negative.

As you’d expect, there’s a degree of apprehension of the unknown. The vast majority of the conversations I’ve had have been with people who are passionate about making healthcare better, and they genuinely want to be able to lead that – usually now. But its natural – and probably wise – to feel at least a bit daunted by the challenges and sacrifices which leadership might entail.

However, the bigger reason behind the overwhelmingly negative verdict on leadership stems from what they already know.

Aspiring GP leaders' feelings about leadership

Aspiring NHS leaders say they’re put off by constant personal criticism directed at leaders, by seeing role models who appear to be superhuman and by being ill-equipped with the skills to make change happen.

Aspiring NHS leaders say they're put off by constant personal criticism directed at leaders, by seeing role models who appear to be superhuman and by being ill-equipped with the skills to make change happen.

Robert Varnam, speaking with NextGeneration GP members Tweet

It can be disheartening to see bright and enthusiastic people start their careers with good reason to feel fearful about getting into leadership. However, it also fuels my desire to continue doing what I can to support initiatives like Next Generation GP. Through workshops on how to lead change, interviews with senior figures about their life and work, and the encouragement of a network of peers, we’ve seen big shifts. Hardly anyone finishes their year of the Next Generation GP programme without feeling that leading in the NHS is more attainable for them and that they’re likely to make a reasonable job of it.

If experienced leaders can do more to show we're human too, and to pass on skills in leading change that works, I'm hopeful we'll see more brilliant younger clinicians stepping up to improve healthcare.

…and maybe we should watch we don’t make valid criticism at work sound personal?  But that’s a topic for another day!

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