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NHS urged to embrace ‘systems leadership’

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Healthcare charity The King’s Fund is urging the NHS to embrace ‘systems leadership’ as a way of overcoming service and financial challenges.

The King’s Fund senior fellow Nick Timmins told HR magazine system leadership “was the only way out” for the NHS given the unprecedented challenges the service is facing.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that what the NHS needs is systems leadership that goes across hospitals, primary care, social care, government and so on,” he said.

“The NHS alone can’t get itself out of its financial hole. The solution is not doing things the same way they have always been done. You need to work across boundaries.”

Systems leadership is defined as working across several different systems to join up local services. It is closely connected to collective leadership, which requires everyone in the organisation, whatever their level, to take some responsibility for success.

Timmins said the “days of the heroic leader and the single organisation” are in the past as the healthcare industry now needs “more than that”.

He added: “We have an ageing population and more patients with multiple chronic conditions. They need a combination of health and social care. Health needs are changing and the way they are provided for has to change. You need some rather different skills.”

In a report for The King’s Fund – The practice of systems leadership: Being comfortable with chaos – Timmins explored the skills needed for systems leadership to be successful.

One finding, he told HR magazine, was that “you can achieve almost anything if you don’t want to take credit for it”.

“You need to build an evidence base for change, that helps convert the unwilling,” he added. “Start with a coalition of the willing and get them to persuade everyone down the line.”

Other lessons include that implementing this type of leadership can take time to achieve results, that it’s important to have a core, stable leadership team involved, and that you should include patients and carers.

Timmins said that there was debate over whether system leadership could be taught. “It’s a bit of both [teaching and innate],” he said. “There’s evidence that it can be taught.”