Women in Leadership – Global Health Series: Leadership through the eyes of GECCo
by Anisa Jafar
I’ve never had any trouble considering myself a leader when it comes to following my own self. Generally, I have reflexively sought out and questioned what I find important and interesting and followed a reasonably self-led path. However, the idea of leading others is one not quite a comfortable fit. For a start, how do you know the direction you are leading people in is the right one? It is easy to change course when it is a solo mission, but there is a real responsibility which comes with leading others: as much as they may have volition to choose not to follow, you still risk taking up valuable time along the way. Equally how do you maintain a radar as to whether your leadership is required, relevant and adding value? Imagine all of the above are positive, but what if you are no longer in a position to lead anymore: perhaps the original vision has changed, there is no longer enough time to lead or simply your heart is no longer in it?
When the idea of the Global Emergency Care Collaborative (GECCo), as it has come to be known, emerged, I remember articulating it with caution – unwilling to commit to developing it until I’d reached a moment where I could invest some time and energy into exploring it properly. When that moment came, I’d just finished a PhD in healthcare documentation in disasters and was due to begin my NIHR Academic Clinical Lectureship (ACL). But I’d found myself surrounded by colleagues in emergency medicine who seemed to share my vision of bringing those in UK emergency care, with a global health interest together in some way. The tipping point had been reached in my mind, if I did nothing at that time, I’d be letting myself and others down, by letting go of the valuable potential.
I don’t profess to “lead” GECCo in the traditional sense, but I have an awareness that I have displayed some actions of leadership since its inception. All the while I have tried to enact this leadership by satisfying those background challenges. I reflect on this leadership journey as one of a boat built and placed on rapids. The boat knows where it is going and has the momentum to get there however at times it needs a steer, sometimes I’m the one noticing this, sometimes I am responding to someone else noticing. Other times we might get stuck and we need some paddling to get back on course, my leadership actions might be to paddle hard, or it might be to ask for help to get us all paddling out.
GECCo Event July 2020
Whilst those three questions I began with have not been completely answered as we are only at the start, there are many ways in which they are being addressed:
Is the direction right?
As founding members, we deliberately spent a long time discussing what we wanted to be and what we wanted to avoid, and we revisit this regularly to challenge whether we still want to continue in the same direction
The nature of our first group event was centred around understanding what our proposed community of membership might want us to be
Do my leadership actions have a place?
Inviting challenge to ideas has been paramount to countering the danger of dogma which ensures any “action” has overall agreement, whether it comes from myself or someone else
Encouraging all active members to step forward and take on whatever they feel able to is a recurring theme: balancing placing unwanted burden with creating an “open mic” requires genuine repetition and emphasis
Am I still invested?
I have needed to check myself carefully for fatigue, avoiding the temptation to assume responsibility for all aspects of GECCo would not only stretch my capacity but also undermine the collective leadership approach we have striven for
Sustainability and transparency have been a key feature: going too hard too soon with over-direction would have burnt many of us out and would have placed too much distance within the leadership and membership interplay
I suppose with GECCo, it has become a somewhat unique leadership – leading without actually leading: setting the scene, throwing in some ideas and letting us lead ourselves. Listening, hearing and conversing are not especially profound actions but doing them with authenticity and respecting what is said is probably our biggest strength. To achieve this requires a light touch which I suspect is not something which comes naturally to my character: I am an extrovert; I understand what it means to lead a team in the more traditional model when an emergency situation requires definitive steps; I am willing to take and stand by my own decisions. This process is a learning journey at every turn. The organic evolution of GECCo to a sustainable, approachable and flexible state requires this kind of concertedly barely-there leadership. But, as always, we still need the occasional swan-moments of ferocious kicking beneath still waters.
Anisa is an ST5 in Emergency Medicine in the North West of England undertaking an NIHR Academic Clinical Lectureship (ACL) at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester.