Leadership 2: Talking about mistakes

Speak no evil…

I’m going to keep talking about this conference that the King’s Fund hosted last month, because it was a genuine light-bulb moment.  Usually, I go to conferences about women in leadership and I hear about successes; the smooth path and straight career trajectory.  They almost never talk about the stumbles and falls; the days when they thought about giving up.  I’ve never found these talks inspirational – I’ve always found them depressing.  I’m not on this straight path through management; I don’t know what I’m doing in 1 year/5 years/10 years… I usually come away thinking that there is such an enormous gap between me and them that I might as well not bother.

So the King’s Fund was a revelation.  A group of powerful, successful women talking about their careers… and what had gone wrong.  I can relate to this: I’m usually quite aware of what I’m getting wrong.  Often, I’m told to build on the positives and learn from my mistakes.  That sounds encouraging; as though there’s hope and potential for development and growth (and all those other buzz words I come across)

We all make mistakes…

It sounds good: that’s often not what’s replicated in the talks and speeches that “successful” people give.  It makes it harder to learn from mistakes, and to grow, and to develop, if the people held up as leaders don’t talk about their mistakes.  I’m sure that they’ve made mistakes, and learnt from them, but for some reason it isn’t seen as acceptable to talk about them.  Taking an outside perspective, it’s a really interesting dichotomy: where the internal must accept mistakes and learn from them to be a leader, but the external persona isn’t supposed to reveal this.  From the inside, it’s profoundly confusing and limiting.  Yes, I’m beginning to realise this, but reflecting on my experiences and how they relate to my professional development is time-consuming and draining.  I don’t always have time for this: why does it have to be so covert??

Which is why the King’s Fund was so refreshing: it was an open and frank discussion of differences between individuals who happened to be women, and who were prepared to share what they’d learnt.  And inevitably, that meant learning from the mistakes.

It’s what happens next that really matters

I almost saw this as an isolated event.  Maybe, even, as a “women’s” way of doing leadership (the supportive, nurturing model.  Apparently).

Except, that last week, we had a teaching session from a male, surgical consultant I like working with; I also respect him hugely as a clinician (that does not mean it’s always easy to work together; it’s not, but it’s satisfying, and it’s good patient care).  He talked about the situations where he could have done things differently; points at which he wished he could have taken a step back.  He wanted us to learn from his mistakes; and more importantly, we could see that he was learning them too.  That’s more important because that’s a skill that we need to have throughout our careers to continue to learn.  I think that’s more relevant than learning a single point in a unique case that may never come up again.  It’s also a lot harder, in so many ways.


There has to be some sense of balance in all this.  Nobody wants to be paralysed by the thoughts of past mistakes to the extent that they can’t do their job.  I’ve been that person: it’s not good for you, and it’s certainly no good for your patients.  Sharing your mistakes with your team is a way of getting some proportion back.  It’s also potential for solutions.  It’s what we do within our peer group: why is it so rarely visible between levels of hierarchy?

Back in the real world

Having these experiences so close to each other has led me to think about the other leaders I admire in my everyday life.

Here’s what I realised: they all do this.  In different ways, they are all honest and open about the mistakes that they make, and how they change (or try to) as a result.  The really amazing ones are open with everyone. (I think this is important too: I’ve seen before consultants talk through decisions that didn’t go well with families, and how they could have done things differently.  I’ve seen the same consultants then not accept that with themselves or their team.  I think that’s a much harder thing to do, because it’s both personal and professional.  But that’s another whole post.)

What makes these people so powerful is their recognition of mistakes.

Power isn’t about pretending everything is OK, that you are perfect.

It’s what happens when you own yourself enough to realise that mistakes happen, but that learning & changing is how to improve.


I can do the theory – that’s the easy bit.  Actually applying this in practic …*shrugs shoulders*.

Note 2:

Especially the section on “balance” and “not getting paralysed by fear of mistakes”.

Note 3:

And no, I still haven’t completed my multi-source feedback self-assessment on how amazing I am supposed to think I am at my job.


Leadership 1: Making a cup of tea…

Leadership & Management….

Another one of those things that was high on the list of things I was never going to do, and that I seem to find myself increasingly drawn towards.  So, I’m starting from the beginning really: going to conferences & meetings; having chats with some really inspirational leaders; bouncing ideas around via Twitter and my amazing Action Learning Set (honestly, I am so impressed with Health Education East Midlands for funding these; and for being around to chat with a trainee on Twitter… @EastMidsLETB)

Last week, I went to the King’s Fund Women in Leadership Conference.  Considering a lot of the discussion was about how women are perceived in the workplace, maybe I shouldn’t be starting a blog on leadership with “making a cup of tea”…. But after a lot of discussion and thought, I’ve started to think that making a cup of tea is a key part of a being a leader.

Bear with me on this: I’ve given it a lot of thought, and the more I think about it, the more important it seems.

For somebody else…

Taking a moment to make a cup of tea for someone else is a way of showing someone that you care about them as a human being.  It’s a demonstration that you’ve noticed that they’re tired, or stressed, or worried.  (Lets face it, we’re always at least one of those in the NHS; usually a combination of all three).  It’s a sign of respect; of recognition that they’re there because they care.  And everyone can show that to the people on their team.  It’s the bosses who always bring in snacks for #teamweekend (especially those who remember to bring extras for #teamnightshift).  It’s the fantastic HCA who once stood at the door and force-fed me tea when I’d had a particularly bad shift.  It’s the play specialist who noticed I was getting ratty, and rather than react to that, decided to bring me a coffee.  It’s every time I’ve been sent on a break by my nurses.  Individuals caring about each other, and all it takes is a cup of tea (and a biscuit if you really, really care)

For your team…

But it’s more than just individuals: it’s about bringing your team together.  When I was a student, and we still had “firms”, the post-take round always finished with the night team going for breakfast together.  It was a moment to spend time together, and recognise that actually, everyone had come together.  Cups of tea do the same thing.  I remember being a very new SHO, and coming out of a resuscitation that hadn’t worked.  My SpR and I were both stunned, but we thought we had to get on with it in the last hour of the shift: handover sheets, blood gases, re-writing drug charts.  Our consultant sat us down in the staff room, made us both cups of tea, and insisted on us drinking them while he disappeared.  He knew there was nothing he could say.  Instead, he went around the ward, doing all the little jobs, and giving us time to recover.  It’s just one of the ways that we knew our team would support us and look after us.

For yourself…

And sometimes, making a cup of tea is a moment for ourselves.  It’s a strange thing: you can’t rely on muscle memory and it does take a bit of thought (does x take sugar? is that milk off?); but it leaves you enough space to think.  Space to step back and realise what can you change about the shift so far.  Sometimes, it’s a clinical niggle that just doesn’t fit the pattern.  Usually, for me, it’s the realisation that I’ve missed the connection in my team; that there’s a point that I need to address.  It’s not deliberate – they’re just things that float into my head as I’m sorting milk, sugar, tea bag whipped out, tea bags left in… But most often, it’s a mental intake of breath and a moment to regroup before heading out to start all over again.