I recently went to see the film about Winston Churchill's first weeks as Prime Minister - 'Darkest Hour'. The film includes the rescue of our troops from Dunkirk; it’s a political story in terms of what, how and why Churchill came to power. It’s always interesting to me that leaders often have ‘a time and place’, particularly in times of change, conflict, and disruption. With this in mind, what really stuck out for me was the fact that actually, Churchill’s own party did not want him as a leader. Instead, they wanted the Foreign Secretary – Viscount Halifax. It was Clement Attlee, the leader of the Labour party, who was calling for a leadership change, and it was really only the Labour party who would accept Churchill as a joint collaborative leadership, so the parties agreed to work together.
So, what was it about Churchill that the Conservative party did not like as a leader? He would be considered a risk taker, emotional, and unstable, with the party citing a number of “poor” decisions like Gallipoli. But interestingly, as the film (I think) quite accurately portrays, the risk-taking was not extreme. It was focused and with clarity of intent, and as history tells us, was needed. Was the instability more about people misreading ‘stability’, misreading the risk-taking? Actually, Churchill was consistent, and in many ways very stable. He was very focused on what he believed was the right thing to do, and he stuck to his guns. So, is this not, in a way, a prime example of what stability is?
We know we can measure plasticity and stability via Alpha and Beta factors, which we do with the many leaders that we partner with in the NHS and wider public services.
Alpha and Beta factors are described as 'superordinate factors' which are on a higher level than the Big Five factors, as described by John Digman in 1997. Research has identified two measurable aspects of personality that are potentially very relevant to the idea of person/organisation fit:
Factor Alpha – a blend of characteristics that reflect degrees of conscientiousness, agreeableness and emotional stability – likely acceptance of rules, norms and conventions – "getting along"
Factor Beta – a combination of the effects of degrees of extraversion and openness to experience – "getting on"
My personal feelings are, not having met Churchill, and only being able to read biographies and auto-biographies and commentators’ thoughts like that of C. S. Lewis, well I surmise that Churchill would have been what we at ICE call a ‘Specialist Leader’:
Strengths: High level of drive and ambition. They are very committed to their specialism and take great satisfaction from achieving outcomes that are related to their cause or specialism.
Things to be mindful of: They are moderately social at work, however their drive and ambition could result in lesser interest in concern for others. Their degree of adherence and engagement to norms and expected processes may be variable and they need support in this area.
So, we find ourselves in, thank heavens, not a war period. Where we do find ourselves, particularly within our public services (NHS and social care), is in an extreme period where transformation and doing things differently are absolutely needed. What type of leaders do our STPs need for us to create radical new ways of work?
In our work with partners in STPs and more localised place-based care sub-systems (previously known as ACSs or ACOs), we are finding challenges of leadership and ground-holding in terms of illness, flu, diabetes, COPD, obesity, alcohol and drug addiction. These challenges are putting our NHS, Public Health and Social Care in the proverbial tiger’s mouth. We need leaders that are here to serve their country – their ‘Place’, and not their tribe or party. Maybe the writing was on the wall for Viscount Halifax: “We’re facing certain defeat on land, the annihilation of our army, and imminent invasion. We must negotiate peace talks.”
We need leaders that are flexible, open to ideas and change and that might have lower levels of compliance, higher levels of consideration and the ability to truly self-discipline. I suppose it’s about finding the right types of leaders for transformation – these leaders are not always popular, but they inspire us, they are authentic and exciting - if not a little scary to be around! A few other things come to mind in terms of the essential ingredients that leaders and transformation require. They need to have absolute passion in the things that they hold as important; they will remain focused, not always necessarily calm, but certainly focused. There is a scene in Darkest Hour where Churchill is interrupted and is asked to negotiate with Mussolini who would, on our behalf, go and plead with Hitler on a settlement. Churchill stops the conversation dead and says: “When will the lesson be learned! You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!”.
I think it accurately summed up where we were with Germany and us being pushed out of France as a force. So, leaders in times of change need to be absolutely sure of what it is that they want to do. They need to be purpose driven, and they need to know the will of the people. To be able to take risk - to be given that space - they need to be wise, particularly with choosing their moments to act and knowing when to hold back.
As I sat watching the film, one thing that sprang to my mind is Natural Leaders, where we often put people into those pressure points where they can examine who they are, how they lead, how they want to deal with risk, how they deal with communication and perception, and also how they manage people around them – not too dissimilar to the lessons Churchill learned, particularly in those first 10-20 days of being Prime Minister.
Lessons for us all: when it comes to great leadership, it’s not always the leaders we assume that should be the leader – those who feel like a more ‘natural’ fit. Instead, I am a firm believer that we can develop leaders as Churchill did. We can create accelerated experiences that will allow people to get back to the day job and lead our teams in transformation to create the real lived experience of a New Model of Care and to help lead our people and places as populations to a much more engaged prevention to drive for wellbeing, happiness, and health.
A warning - at the end of this transformation, the likelihood that those same leaders, who have done their job exceptionally well, will need to find fresh challenges is high. Whilst we build in succession plans for leaders who are happy to lead in times of peace and times of stability, they are not the same – every leader has their place and their time.