Leadership means to follow
by Harrison Carter
Being a leader isn’t easy. It can often present major challenges and be a frustrating task. I have found that when I’ve struggled to bring a team along with me or persuade an organisation of the need to branch out and to explore beyond their horizons, the biggest weakness is not anybody around me, but myself.
From this comes lesson one; be self-aware.
I recall trying to change the focus of a team I was once an integral part of over 4 years ago, before I was elected to co-chair the BMA’s Medical Students Committee.
I wanted this team to progress from being a proactive force to becoming flexible and malleable enough to also react to emerging themes in our area of interest. The aim was to be the ‘go to’ place for people in the UK when they thought about the type of work that we were doing. That wasn’t an easy thing to do and I spent a long period of time trying to identify faults within other people. I questioned why they couldn’t see my vision or recognise the importance of the task I was laying out.
This presented a real problem because what evolved from this perceived conflict of personalities and mission, was fragmentation. An unwillingness by me and others to engage constructively with each other. The line went dead. I retreated and so did they. The result was bad for everybody. The organisation stagnated and became less relevant – the opposite of what we were trying to achieve.
What followed this breakdown in communication relates to my second lesson; do not occupy all of your headspace with managerial tasks. Opportunities to think and reflect are just as important as daily maintenance and upkeep. This can be achieved in a range of different ways. Speaking out loud to yourself, drawing pictures and diagrams, using discussion and dialogue.
In the organisation I’m referring to, we were on life support, focussing purely on the deliverables without any thought about how we could evolve (because these discussions were too painful as we couldn’t agree) and something needed to change so that we could begin to re-focus our efforts on the task in hand. That, in itself, required leadership from everybody.
To move forward, we went through a stage of listening. We tried to understand each other’s ideas. We made decisions about which forms of communication didn’t work, where the major disagreements were and how we could compromise with each other. We became productive, on task, on message and willing to be flexible. The organisation, once again, began to flourish. There was more room for us to innovate.
The third lesson is quite simple; conflict doesn’t work. Leadership means to follow. It’s better to leave egos and vested interests at the door. It’s important to recognise that you don’t lead for yourself. You lead to allow others to be supported to work toward their goals and make their ideas a reality.
Why not give it a go?
Harrison has co-chaired the BMA’s UK Medical Students Committee since 2013 and is a Newton Masters Scholar at Cambridge, studying for a Masters in Public Health and Epidemiology before his final year of medical school at Bristol.