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Effective Leadership in the Human, Health and Community Services Sector: Learning to Step Out of the Spotlight

Like many things in life, effective leadership will never be an exact formula; but nor should it be mysterious or feel unattainable.

Being a manager is actually quite easy, if you take a control and demand approach; tasks need to be completed, deadlines need to be met and budget cuts made.

However, what can often happen as a by-product of this type of management approach, is that staff can be left feeling isolated and undervalued, and as a result it can have a detrimental impact on productivity, culture and staff turnover. Whereas being an effective leader is hard, and it should feel hard (if you’re doing it right); it takes continuous reflection, growth, commitment, vulnerability, and work.

The emergence of a new wave of leadership thinking, largely based on the research and work of those like Brene Brown, Simon Sinek and Adam Grant, is focused on authenticity, self-awareness and vulnerability in leadership.

To be an effective leader, we need to be aware of ourselves; our strengths and areas for development. An effective leader isn’t the loudest, smartest or best in the room; I’ve witnessed first hand an exceptional leader being one of the quietest in the room, and when they did contribute to the discussion in the meeting - everyone paid attention.

Being an effective leader doesn’t mean you’re the superhero coming in to save the day or rescue everyone from their piles of work, a negative workplace culture or low staff morale. People don’t need or actually want to be rescued by a manager (despite what they might say!).

We know from research that workplaces function more productively and efficiently when staff feel included in decision making, or in finding solutions to problems. As human beings, we have an innate need to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves, and an effective leader harnesses this through emotionally intelligent leadership that incorporates numerous approaches such as affiliative, democratic and coaching leadership styles.

It might feel nice to our ego to step into the spotlight of being a leader, and we can absolutely validate and praise ourselves for that promotion, we deserve it! But, we also need to proceed slowly and with curiosity.

When you’re coming into a team as a new leader, spend time focusing on relationships with people in the team; get to know them, have lunch with them, go for that morning coffee run. Learn their strengths, passions and values. Hear their perspective on what is working well, and what things need improvement in the organisation; what ideas do they have?

To be an effective leader, you don’t need to be the know-er or do-er of all things. Of course as a leader there is a general expectation that you have a certain level of knowledge, skill and experience. But what makes a leader most effective is knowing the strengths in their team. As Frederick W. Smith (founded of FedX) put it; “a good manager is not a person who can do the work better than his men, he is a person who can get his men to do the work better than he can”.

Unfortunately, the pathway into leadership in the human services sector is more often than not, broken. Great clinicians are promoted into leadership roles, but not provided with any training, ongoing support or mentorship to grow and develop their leadership identity and skills. This is mostly due to organisations not having the time or resources to dedicate to leadership development (and in some cases, organisations not knowing the benefit of doing so).

This creates a “should” mentality of the new leader; “I’m a manager now, I should know this!”, “I shouldn’t have to ask for help”, and then when that leader feels lost or unsure, so begins a shame and guilt spiral.

Of course, we could take a systems-theory approach and a deep dive into what is broken about this leadership development in this sector, but how much of that do we really have any real control over? Instead, we need to focus on what we can control; ourselves and our own development as leaders.

Lean into vulnerability and feel comfortable to say “I don’t know the answer to that question, give me some time to look into it and I’ll get back to you by the end of the day”. Or, “That’s not my strong suit, why don’t you ask Suzie in accounts, I know she’s really great at data”. The team will appreciate your honesty and recognising the strengths of their colleagues. People are pretty good at reading when a manager is fumbling their way through and trying to hide it by falling into an authoritative or coercive leadership style.

Being a leader means that sometimes, the tasks have to wait. It can also mean that your new to-do list involves mentoring and developing staff, and that’s okay – your focus needs to shift as a leader and you need to bring a balance between tasks and relationships.

What would an article on leadership be without a quote from Brene Brown? And so, I’ll leave you with this; “I define a leader as anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential”.

Remember: it’s okay to step out of the spotlight and help to shine it on someone else.

About the Author:

Jen Gibbons (nee, Hawkins) is a practitioner and leader with over ten years experience across government and non-government organisations within the health, community and human services industries.

Are you looking to grow your leadership skills? Are you curious to know more about how you can support your team to grow in their practice?

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Hi just wondering if this workshop in May might be available online? I know a lot of QLD based leaders that would love to attend virtually. Cheers.

Replying to

Hi Richie, I am definitely planning to run some online workshops soon . Make sure you’re in our mailing list to be kept up to date with training opportunities

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