Reflections – Finding leadership in the process and not the goal
by Shefali Parikh
The last eight months as a Clinical Leadership Fellow have been an absolute rollercoaster – ups and downs with a tangible fear of falling off.
I hated the fellowship year to start with. At the outset, the lack of well-defined goals and expectations made it an unsettling challenge. It felt rudderless. It was not clear to me what specific institutional problems required solutions or which collaboratives needed support. It was more free flowing – with some basic background information; it was up to me to make decisions on what I deemed worth pursuing.
This set up presented a unique dilemma. The areas I was interested in didn’t necessarily align with the departments’ agenda or capabilities. I was quite comfortable with hard work and had consistently achieved academic success. Given a defined target, producing high quality work was not a challenge for me. During my fellowship year, I had expected to work towards clear goals, but as part of a large team and to learn how to navigate interpersonal and organisational complexities. However, despite my best efforts I just couldn’t find something tangible with a hook or the right mentor. To make matters worse, I was uncomfortable with un-productivity. Exploring ideas that didn’t produce definitive outcomes were actions I perceived as a waste. I was used to being a doer. This anxiety and the overall situation made me “needy”. For the first time in my life, my clinical and academic reputation didn’t precede me and it didn’t directly matter. What mattered was the person standing in the room – and that person was lost, confused and anxious. Not really a leader.
This initial failure to achieve immediate success was a valuable life lesson. Honestly, life up until that point had been pretty uncomplicated, work hard = reap success. This formula was now broken. I began the slow learning process of how to evaluate my self, my goals and my blind spots.
I met inspiring leaders. They spoke about how change is slow and sometimes frustrating. But one often has to spend ages putting the pieces in the right place so when the opportunity comes along you can grab it for a radical change. How culture is the most important thing and how developing relationships is crucial. I could relate to this as in one short month I had already experienced how knowing people opened doors, and made all the difference in what work gets championed. Making people feel valued and appreciated was an art, and it empowered others to want to do more. I recognised that if nothing else, this ‘network’ of people across the Trust that I was building would be invaluable when I return to clinical practice.
I appreciated that I needed to slow down, I needed to listen more, I needed to be more patient and recognise that sometimes there just won’t be a tangible output. This didn’t mean that I should steer a boat without direction. However, if things were to fall apart, it would allow me a tool to self-soothe. Not everything is my fault and not everything is in my control. And although it seems like I failed this time, the foundations have been built to allow me to succeed the second time around.
I eventually achieved varying measures of success with many projects. Education and adopting new technology are both long haul processes. In a hospital, there isn’t a sense of urgency attached to either of those words. Neither is it in public prominence like wellbeing. But as an underdog I rallied along, made peace with my self and finally learnt to enjoy the process as much as the end goal.
And then Covid-19 happened.
Suddenly, the landscape changed. Education, Training and Digitalisation were thrust under the limelight. Many opportunities to lead inspiring and important work arose and I grabbed them with both hands. The red tape magically melted away. I was also in a unique position to see how a mammoth organisation works in times of crisis. How the organisational framework changes. How different leaders rise to prominence and others take a backseat. How a ‘command and control’ operational framework functions. Suddenly clarity, precision, economy of words and detail mattered. This is where my strengths lay. My natural abilities shone, tempered though by the learning over the past 6 months. It was blindingly obvious to me that meetings must have a clear agenda, but now I also knew that they must start with a note of appreciation and thanks to the team who have journeyed with you thus far.
My only criteria of success at the start of this year had been based on measurable outcomes. My own journey came full circle when I turned such an outcome heavy project down. I was given a brilliant opportunity to work on educational development in a new organisation. I delegated my Trust work to others, cleared my diary and prepared to move ship. Unfortunately, it was quickly apparent that the new environment didn’t work personally, professionally or morally for me. I admitted to my self that I wasn’t enjoying the role. The only reason for me to continue was for credit. I wasn’t proud, inspired or motivated, I simply wanted my name on the project. And that’s never a good enough reason to do anything. I resigned and returned to the Trust.
In many areas, my learning is still in its infancy and will need a lifetime of work. But I am okay with that. I am learning how to respond and not react. I used to see the world in black and white, but the truth is often much more nuanced and grey. My natural style is brutal honesty, I’m learning tact. I’m realising that targets and tasks are relatively easy, people are complicated. Maya Angelou’s timeless wisdom sums up my learning very well, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I am much better prepared now. Cautiously optimistic and confident. I’m looking forward to the next challenge.
Shefali Parikh is a Clinical Leadership Fellow in Medical Education and Digitalisation at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust. By background a Clinical Oncology Registrar and Trainee Board Member of the National Oncology Trainee Collaborative for Healthcare Research. She is fond of the written word, art and all things yellow.