Think back to the day it started. The day you realised that life would never be quite the same again. I imagine nothing quite prepared you for that moment. Maybe it was planned. Maybe it was suddenly thrown upon you. Or maybe you just realised now was as good a time as any.
At first, it might have felt like you were furiously treading water. And then one day, you realised you were simply doing it, the parenting thing. There was even the odd day when you’d congratulate yourself on just about nailing it. And then your children would pass into a new decade, or life would throw a new curve ball, and it would feel like that first day all over again.
I’ve just spent a year as a National Medical Director’s Clinical Fellow. It’s been a privilege to spend time with such a breadth of leaders in the NHS. I tried for a while to piece together what I’ve learnt about leadership - and I struggled.
I kept a notebook of musings from the leaders I met. As I sat there thumbing through it, I was struck by something: I could easily have been reading a collection of reflections from new parents. Not that I am one, I should add. But like all of us, I’ve been on the receiving end, at least - just as with leadership.
One of the most striking parallels with parenting I’ve found is this: the best leaders I’ve come across don’t simply sit back and expect to inspire others. They see their job as nurturing the people around them, nudging them gently and persistently to flourish into better versions of themselves. They’re driven by a hope that their followers will reach even higher heights than they have done.
At its core, I think the job of a leader is to take people from where they are, to an unknown place. They’re charged with helping others to leave the security of the present, to embrace an imagined, and perhaps risky, future. Along this journey, they role model the behaviours they wish to see in others - in their decisions, in their language and behaviours, and even in their silences. And no single approach is the same. I think most parents could relate.
"The best leaders are driven by a hope that their followers will reach even higher heights than they have done."
Good parents build trust, stay consistent in their values, and cultivate a culture of compassion that binds the family in the face of threats. To do this well, they know they must understand and look after themselves first. They build support networks, and maintain a sense of humble curiosity to learn from others. And that learning might even stem from their children, who see things through a lens free of the distortion that comes with selective experience.
Like parenting, I’ve also seen how the job can be a thankless task. It can be emotionally draining, a huge personal sacrifice, and often lonely.
When things go well, the credit is dissipated. But when they don’t, the blame falls firmly at your feet. You might make unpopular decisions, knowing that they’re best for the long-term and working within an invisible scaffold of constraints. By the time any positive impact emerges, those on the receiving end may forget who drove it in the first place. It’s like being made to eat your greens.
Frankly, like having a child, it would be easier not to do it at all. So, why do they?
After a year of observing leaders in so many different pockets of the NHS, I haven’t found a universal answer. Like parenting, I think it’s a very individual choice. Sometimes it’s unplanned. But I think sometimes it’s a calling, a visceral desire to leave a legacy. It’s knowing that deep down you have some set of values that’s worth passing on.
Perhaps it’s worth reflecting on the type of leadership we need in the NHS going forwards. Do we need a parenting style suited to managing toddlers, sticking to the belief that we know what’s best for them, even if they can’t see it for themselves? Or does a complex system need leadership that’s more akin to handling adolescents - empowering them with the tools to create something of their own, while silently forging a path so that it’s safe for them to proceed?
There’s one final aspect where I think the analogy rings truest of all. Parenting can feel like a hugely overwhelming prospect. But if you take a moment to look around at those that are, they weren’t born parents. There was no manual that dropped into their laps. Nor did they ask for permission. They’d been on the receiving end, probably had an idea of what good parenting might look like, and some people around them who could see it too. That was enough - it just had to be.
And so, I think it’s the same for many of the leaders I’ve met. Over time, an innate, flickering potential is unlocked, and a new identity is forged.
Like most parents, they may never believe they’re getting close to their own definitions of greatness. But somehow, they keep going. Perhaps simply because they care. And perhaps, because they also know that it comes with an opportunity: to raise children who might, one day, get that little bit closer.
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