We Have a Power Problem!

NHS – we have a problem! This blog forms a hiatus in the middle of a 4 blog mini-series about what I call the four rings of leadership (in the context of healthcare). I have been musing on some statements made at the IHI conference in London, Quality 2017, and before I go any further, I want to take a pause to reflect on the notion of power. Helen Bevan says that the number one issue facing our health care system is the issue of power. I would suggest that unless we seriously reflect on power and how it manifests itself in our systems and in us as individuals, then we will never be able to co-create health and well-being in our society.

 

In my last blog, I mentioned an excellent talk that I heard Derek Feeley of IHI and Jason Leitch, the CMO of Scotland, give together about our need to “cede” power, if we are to build safe, high quality, economically sustainable health systems. They contend that we need to move from keeping power, to sharing power and then ceding power. To cede power, means to transfer/surrender/concede/allow or yield power to others. I do believe this is correct. I believe that true leadership is absolutely about being able to ’empty out’ positions or seats of power, so that all are empowered to effect positive change and build a society of positive peace. However, my contention is this: ceding power is not helpful unless we first deal with the very nature of power. Once we have dealt with its very substance can we truly cede it through our organisations and systems to bring increased well-being for all.

 

I have talked many times over the dinner table with my great friends Roger and Sue Mitchell about the nature of sovereignty and power. Sovereignty is a dominant theme within our political discourse at the moment, at a national and international level. It is worth reflecting that sovereignty (the right to self-govern) is utterly intertwined with our understanding of power, and we need to pull the two apart if we are ever to cede the kind of power that can transform the future. If we do not recognise (have a full awareness/deeply know) this, we will continue to inadvertently create hierarchical dominance and systems that become the antithesis of what they are created to be.

 

 

We see the issue of sovereign power at work every day in the NHS. We see it in terms of power edicts from on high, without understanding the local context or issues worked through in a relational way. We see it in the way these edicts are then outworked through leadership and management styles, which are very top-down and hierarchical in nature, eating up people like bread in the process – what Foucault calls “Biopower”. We see it in the way wards are managed and in the way GP surgeries are run. Sovereign power says “I’m in charge around here” and “we’re going to do things my way”. We see it in individuals who choose to practice autonomously without thinking about the wider implications on the system, prescribing however they would like to, without thinking about the cost implications. We see it in the attitude of some patients, when it becomes about “my rights” with an unbearable or unaffordable pressure put onto the system. If we multiply sovereign power, we simply end up with lots of  kings and queens who defend their own castle, creating more barriers, walls and division in the process. Sovereign power is defunct and dangerous and it is this which is currently destroying our ecosystems and wider society. The “I did it my way” approach is rooted in self preservation and ambition and does nothing to help us build health and well-being in society. Sovereign power stands in the way the very social movements we need to see, because Sovereign power is based on fear.

 

Sovereign power has its roots in certain streams of theology and philosophy which have in turn laid the foundation for a way of doing politics and economics based on the supremacy of the state and within that the individual. However, the damaging effects of this are seen on our environment and on community, with utterly staggering levels of inequality, injustice and damage to the world in which we live.

 

If we are to truly cede a power that is effectual in changing the world, then it is not enough to simply reconfigure (rearrange) it, or reconstitute it ( i.e. give it a new structure/share it). First of all, we must revoke it! In other words, we must look ‘Sovereign power’ straight in the eyes and reject it, cancelling it’s toxic effects on our own selves and on that of others. We must change our minds about it and embrace instead a wholly different kind of power. Sovereign power has not changed the world for the better so far, and I hold no hope of it doing so in the future. No, we don’t need Sovereign power and we certainly don’t want to cede it. Instead, we need kenotic power. Kenotic power is based in self-giving, others empowering love (Thomas Jay Oord). It empowers others, not to live like mini-dictators, but to also dance to a very different beat.

 

I used to play the card game bridge, with my Grandpa (he was an amazing man, who invented Fairy Liquid!). In bridge, to revoke something is to fail to follow suit, despite being able to do so. Kenotic power refuses to play the game of Sovereign power. It embraces an entirely different approach. And as many through the ages have found, this kind of power is truly costly, and can even cost you your career or life; but it is the only kind of power that truly changes the world for good. Jesus, Rosa Parks, Emmeline Pankhurst, Gandhi, MLK, Malala Yousafzai, Nelson Mandela, Florence Nightingale and Mother Theresa are just some, who have embraced this ‘self-giving, others empowering love-based power.’ This is the kind of power we need now. We need it in healthcare and in every other part of our society.

 

Kenotic power is vulnerable but it is not about being a door mat. It is like a beautiful martial art, in which we can say “I won’t fight you and you can’t knock me down, unless I let you” In other words, we lay down our rights and power freely, they are not taken from us by force. So, even when energetic attacks are launched against us, this kind of power allows us to move out of the way, allow the attack to pass through and then to come along side the person and help them see another point of view. Switching to this kind of power is far more creative, less combative and far more fruitful in creating a way ahead full of possibilities without the need for making enemies in the process. We must challenge the deep structural belief that our political and economic systems must be built on and can only be held together by Sovereign power. What if we developed systems based on love, trust, joy and kindness, aiming for the peace and wellbeing of all (including the environment?) – what might such a health system be like? It will take a social movement for us to get this shift, and as I wrote in my previous blog: You might call this a re-humanisation of our systems based on love, trust and the hope of a positive peace for all. But this social movement is not aiming for some kind of hippy experience in which we are all sat round camp fires, singing kum-ba-yah! This social movement is looking to cause our communities to flourish with a sense of health and wellbeing, to have a health and social care movement that is safe, sustainable, socially just and truly excellent, serving the needs of the wider community to grow stronger with individuals learning, growing and developing in their capacity to live well.

 

 

I agree wholeheartedly that the most important role of leaders is to cede their power, so that all can truly flourish, where there is a far greater sense of cooperative and collaborative agency within our (health) systems. But if we do not examine the nature of this power, we will only perpetuate our problems.

 
Martin Luther-King said these famous words – they are seriously worthy of our reflection:

 

Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anaemic. Power at its best is love implementing justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

 

 

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A Collaborative Clinical Community 

*Warning – this blog contains swear words (not that I’m usually a potty mouth!)

This last week we had a gathering of clinical leaders around Morecambe Bay – Nurses, Occupational Therapists, Health Visitors, Midwives, Doctors, Surgeons, Physiotherapists, Pharmacists etc. We were gathered from across primary and secondary care to look together at the financial deficit we are facing as a health community across the Bay where we are seeking to serve our population.

The debt we’re facing (a hole of around 38 million of our English pounds!) is no small thing. Most of it is historic and much of it had nothing to do with us. I spent my first eighteen months as a commissioner feeling furious at the government. I wanted to rail against the machine, the injustice of working in such an oppressive, top down and hierarchical system, which feels like being among the Hebrew Slaves in Egypt when they were told to make the same number of bricks with less resource available to them. I felt so angry with the fact that we invest so little of our GDP into health and social care compared to similar countries and when further unthought through policies were dictated from Whitehall, I felt a total rage. It doesn’t help being politically pretty far to the left and working under a regime to which I feel ideologically opposed.

But one day, I realised two things. The first thing I realised is that the government are not going to change their position or policy. Our systems of government are not set up in a relational, collaborative or solutions focussed way. It doesn’t have to like this, but this is the way it currently is. Our systems have become the very antithesis of their purpose. Rather than serve the needs of the people, the people now serve the systems. The second thing I realised was that my anger didn’t achieve anything except to make me feel tired, disempowered and stressed. I had retreated into the less healthy parts of my personality in which I was keeping false joy alive and feeling burnt out in the process.

Truth has the ability to set you free. When we face truth, no matter how painful, it gives the choice of being more free. Facing up to the truth that the government are not about to change their modus operandi and that I was feeling angry and stressed allowed me to step out of rather childish thought processes and step into something altogether more wholesome. It allowed me to step out of a false sense and rather oppressive noun of responsibility and gave me the space to think more creatively about how I am part of a community of people who can respond to the situation we find ourselves in. We can respond (verb) once we step out of the oppressive yolk of responsibility (noun).

So, those of us in clinical leadership may have not created the financial situation, but there are some stark realities for us to face up to. Whether we like it or not, our current ways of working carry much waste, caused partly by the way the finances of the system operate, but also because we have not thought of ourselves as one. There are ways we behave within the system that create more financial problems and do not serve the community as well as we could. And so it is time for us to do what we can, within our gift by being much braver in our approach. I am suggesting that there are three Cs that are vital to our future.

  1. Collaborative

imagesWe need to reimagine ourselves as all being part of a team who are together tackling the health crises we are facing. We know only too well that, as just one example among many, we are failing kids with asthma because we have not joined up our resources or thinking adequately enough. Yes there are major issues with housing, smoking and pollution, but let’s not point the finger or push the problem somewhere else. Let’s use the phenomenal brains God has given us to pull the right people round the table and work out what we’re going to do about it. Let’s change the way we spend our time so that we’re in schools, we’re listening to our communities and we’re partnering together outside of our normal comfort zones to change the health of the generations to come. We know only too well, that if we don’t shift our focus towards population health and work more intentionally with our communities, doing things with them rather than too them, we will never win this battle. We’re not about playing political games. We are about working with our communities to create optimal health for every person no matter who they are or where they are from. We need to be braver, push the boat away from the shore we know and face the uncertain waters of working altogether differently. In my next blog I will explore some of the possible ways we could work differently.

2) Clinical

In order for the NHS to adapt and become sustainable for the future, we must not be afraid of clinical leadership. Our managers have a phenomenal set of skills, which we must draw on, but there is a trust we have amongst the communities we are embedded in that means they will trust us, if we engage with them properly that will allow us to turn this ship in a new direction. We must partner with our managerial colleagues, but be braver about the direction in which we know deep down we need to head in. We have gained so much expertise and trust and this is not a time to waste it or bury our heads. We must be braver and bolder in our vision of what we can really achieve together.

3) Community

iuAs clinicians we must, as many have stated this week, build bridges not walls. There is far too much division, suspicion and competition amongst us. (Here comes the swearing)…..I was in a conversation with a consultant colleague recently and he was relaying to me that another consultant referred to GPs as a “bunch of Fuck Wits”. In a separate conversation, one of my GP colleagues referred to consultants as a “bunch of arrogant Shits”. These kind of attitudes pervade the NHS and have created a culture of dishonour, distrust and division. Honestly! We’re better than this. How are we going to create the new workforce of the future that works across our currently artificial boundaries if we don’t teach them basic respect? This week a patient came to see me because he was dismayed at having to have seen a nurse at the hospital after suffering a significant condition and wanted to check that I, as a doctor, was happy with what he had been told. I could have laughed it off, but I wanted to stand up for my nursing colleague, who actually has far more expertise in this area of medicine than I do. The advice he had been given was perfect and completely in line with the best guidance available. We must not be afraid to challenge attitudes that are antiquated and out of place. More than ever, we need a culture of honour. A culture of honour is one in which we believe the best of each other, speak well of each other and appreciate our brilliantly necessary but differing gifts and expertise. We need to work out how we work effectively together for the best of the people we serve. We need to connect with each other and rehumanise the system in which we work. When was the last time you met as a cross cultural or multidisciplinary team and simply told each other what you love and appreciate about each other and the work you do? If we can’t learn to be more relationally whole, we will continue to work in the midst of serious dysfunction and strife. Come on – amongst us we have some remarkable gifts of wisdom, healing and hope. Let’s build the kind of culture and community amongst us that stands shoulder to shoulder, changes the story in the media and speaks with one voice to the powers that we are about the a new way of working together through relationship not hierarchy and fear. What might we really achieve together? It is this kind of collaborative clinical community that can change the future of healthcare, not just in the UK, but right across the globe.

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