Jonathon Gray

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is the time I get to spend with our leaders. The COVID-19 pandemic required systemic change at scale which brought the unforeseen opportunity to work with such leaders from across the many silos of health and care, alongside those from places and organisations that we have not always networked with such as the Military, the local authority, elite sport, and many more.

When working with them, there were some common themes from all the leaders reported to me time and time again: how frustrating and lonely it can be for them to navigate the complexities of our system and how difficult it is for any one part of the system to make change alone. We were reminded the hard way over these last two years that complex and inter-connected issues require innovative approaches for mobilizing widespread and meaningful action. We saw the emergence of what some describe as Systems Leadership.

Lisa Dreier, Managing Director of the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University reminds us that it requires the commitment of individuals and organisations joining together to take collective action through large networks and coalitions to create impact and systemic change at scale. It requires new and innovative approaches that engage broad networks of diverse stakeholders, harnessing their complementary capacities to advance progress toward a shared goal. It requires strategies that are emergent, adaptive and flexible, because complex systems are always changing.

What we experienced during the pandemic necessitated a departure from traditional, hierarchical approaches to implementing change and our ambition is to distil the positives of what was different. Through our Dragon’s Heart Institute, we can maintain a space where such system-wide collaborations can occur to pursue extraordinary ‘impossible’ challenges.

A key step forward, working with funding support from Welsh Government, was to build the new systems leadership program, Climb. Climb builds such system leaders, whilst complementing other leadership work in Wales and the UK. Working with some of the best in Wales and from across the world, Climb aims to inspire its participants, teach them the skills, behaviours, and create the networks for them to become effective cross-system leaders. The Spread and Scale Academy, also supported by Welsh Government, brings teams with ideas ready to be spread. We can align those ideas ready to spread with leaders from Climb, as they cultivate and use cross-system networks, to unleash those ideas successfully across Wales.

So where are we right now? Of course, we see frustration and fragmentation. We also see brilliant people in a challenging environment, with enabling policy, but often lacking the full set of skills and behaviours to make change.  We have done extraordinary things before but it tends to be on isolated occasions and we fail to grow those single blooms into a field of flowers. Sometimes we do exactly the wrong thing and cut down the single ‘tall poppy’ instead. Our response to that frustration over fragmentation is to build leaders en masse to make the extraordinary more common in the future. But there isn’t much time!  Extraordinary change will be required to come out of the other side of COVID-19 recovery, and face the queue of seemingly ‘impossible’ challenges that are visible ahead, not least climate change.

I have this picture in my mind.  It’s like building a fire. I see lots of high-tech, sometimes expensive ‘matches’ being lit but there is nothing for them to burn, so they go out. I see some matches are placed against firelighters, and there is that excitement as the fire leaps from the match into the firelighter, and then the flames and smoke get much larger and faster but then there is nothing else to burn and the fire disappointingly goes out. Then there are those rare extraordinary times when the simplest of match, can ignite a firelighter that smokes and then burns brightly, amplifying the small flame of the match briefly, but in that time the kindling is added, and the fire roars into life, and the opportunity is then present to add the big logs, keeping plenty of air running through.

Kindling: that’s what we are creating. The leaders that will be the kindling for the ideas and innovations that briefly shine brightly. Kindling for the bright sparks, that we see everywhere in our system. I think change begins when one, two or more people decide to solve a problem, and find a bright idea. Sometimes we are successful in joining up the bright sparks across our system; We need the firelighter (perhaps the pilot funding, the incubators, the pump priming) but we usually lack the kindling, and we will change that.

We can’t understate the size and complexity of the task. To tackle systemic challenge, the cross-silo leaders must learn to work with many more stakeholders than we usually do. They will need to be able to understand and work with policymakers, technology providers, civil society and research institutions to mobilize a broader impact with a goal of achieving system-wide change. Engaging in such collaboration and alliance-building is often a new and unfamiliar approach for our leaders as current leadership training is sometimes non-existent, and where provided, sometimes siloed within professions, organisations, and methodologies.

As I have progressed through my own career, I have become convinced that the single most important thing we can do is to acknowledge and support our leaders. This is why I have focussed on establishing the Climb programme. In our successful Spread and Scale Academy, in our Bevan Exemplars, in many other programmes we have our bright spots, our initial small bright flame. In the more than 200 that applied for limited places on Climb, and the thirty leaders who have been selected for the 2021/22 cohort, we have our kindling.

We believe the real innovation, and the extraordinary change we need, happens when different cultures, ideas and disciplines come together to spark off new and unprecedented solutions in what Swedish-American entrepreneur Frans Johansson calls The Medici Effect, something which I’ll be writing about further in my next blog.

The Climb leaders will be Inspired and energised by what is possible around the world. They will learn about themselves, grow their self-awareness and understand their impact on others. They will build the knowledge and practices they will need to navigate our changing world.  We will provide them with the skills for connecting across organisational and sector boundaries and support them to build inclusive multigenerational networks, with ongoing opportunities to collaborate and solve big societal challenges. In the spirit of Climb, and the close links to Peter Hillary and the Hillary Institute, we will keep bringing the group back to this inspirational quote by Sir Edmund Hillary:

“People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things”

As I write, I am aware of one immediate challenge facing our leaders. At the end of October, all thirty leaders undertook an initial three days of training and induction, during which they met for the first time as a community and were exposed to some of the best teaching on leadership from around the world. We all felt enthused and energised, yet I know that as each of our leaders returns to their workplace and begins to share their experience with colleagues in the midst of busy professional lives, much of this enthusiasm will wane. The routines which sustain ‘business as usual’ will be hard to change, even if we know our normal ways of working no longer represent the most effective ways of approaching our work. So, I suspect the first challenge that our leaders will be facing will be one of kindling their enthusiasm and translating their new ideas to their workplace despite the suffocating pressure of front-line delivery.

We have all experienced this and have repeatedly seen the potential of excellent leadership courses unrealised as a result. We are testing a number of approaches to this challenge. Firstly, the mind-set; we have created Climb to much more than a course; it is a community and we are seeing extraordinary ideas, and incredible engagement across the group. We will help them form a group like no other with super-charged chemistry in which they support each other. We will give them unprecedented access to pioneers at the forefront of their game, connecting them to likeminded people even beyond their group. We will keep sharing opportunities to huddle and hustle around our biggest societal challenges and we will keep them challenged and supported by seasoned leaders. Senior leaders and experts rarely have the bandwidth to mentor those who follow in their wake but as they retire from the workforce, their value can be forgotten. We will invigorate inter-generational learning by pairing the Climb delegates with exceptional individuals who bring a lifetime of ‘aha’ moments.

Working in New Zealand and then working during the pandemic I was reminded of the importance of belonging, of deep introspection and interrogation of your story which allows you to identify your place within a system and the change you can effect from that place as a result. During the chaos of the initial waves of the pandemic, we saw leaders across our system put their hands up and run towards the fire. Hundreds of individuals and teams achieved incredible things in the face of this monumental challenge. In Climb, we now have a place, a community to bring them together, to give them a forum to make real change as we consider how the NHS should look and work from now on. Communities, such as the one we have formalised as Climb, are a key component of our complex system of the future.

At its core, Climb is about the collective of 30 pioneers and the many more we will engage with in lighter but hopefully significant ways along the journey. Not their individual achievements, failures, or standings in the traditional hierarchy. Instead, it is a network of leaders, where power emanates from the relationships between them and across the ‘usual’ boundaries.

My ambition is that in the months and years to come more and more bright leaders will become part of this unusual network and that together, we will courageously kindle the flames of what extraordinary things can be done.