Luke Blair: From practitioner to leader

The trend to make frontline practitioners the leaders of our institutions is exemplified by a number of current high profile figures.

Luke Blair: Practitioner leaders are in a strong position
Luke Blair: Practitioner leaders are in a strong position

Most obviously there is Lord Coe, the former athlete who has just finished running the London Olympic Games.  Then there is Willie Walsh, the BA boss who was formerly a pilot, London transport commissioner Peter Hendy who once drove buses, and the more recently appointed George Entwistle, BBC DG, who was formerly a news journalist.

From a communications point of view, this trend tells us as much about public perceptions of ability as it does about actual ability. They are all variations of the  'white coat principle' that it is more effective to make doctors your public spokespeople than your managers.

This is of course not only because doctors are inherently trusted figures - anyone who has your health in their hands is bound to be so - but also because NHS managers have been so consistently undermined and criticised over recent years that public audiences are more likely these days to see managers as "bureacrats" than as trusted, or even competent, individuals.

Not surprisingly it is also clinicians who are most often seen talking publicly about the NHS in the media. The fact that they are about to take over the running of the whole thing, one might say, is the logical conclusion of this.

Research by the Cass Business School has actually found a clear correlation between high performing hospitals and their leadership by doctors. The US study established that doctor-led hospitals there had quality scores some 25% higher than other units.

Cass has further suggested that while management capability is important, it is having a relevant professional background, not simply sector experience, that makes an exceptional chief executive. So academics should run universities, engineers should run industrial firms, and lawyers shoud be in charge of law firms.

This means that one of the many golden rules of management - that you should never delegate a task which you yourself could not also do - is as relevant as ever, and as Cass and various public institutions would vouch, lends public leaders a degree of credibility that no amount of PR can buy.

In fact one might even argue that for certain public institutions – representing the military, judiciary, and journalism, for example – it is now almost impossible to become a leader without first being a practitioner. Indeed in the BBC, it would be virtually unthinkable now to appoint as DG someone who had not spent a large part of their career in a frontline job in journalism - as the last four DGs have.

The current quandary that George Entwistle finds himself in regarding the Savile affair is an acutely uncomfortable collision between his old job as an impartial news journalist with impeccable integrity - for example as editor of Newsnight - and his new one as a leader.

He now has to question the very integrity of the BBC in order to get to the root causes of what went on there during the dark days of the Savile era.

For sure, being a practitioner leader is a strong position to be in - so long as you are prepared to question as a leader all the things you learnt when you were previously a practitioner.


Luke Blair is a director at London Communications Agency.

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