Posted: Tuesday 1st September 2020
Recently, in the course of our work, we were talking with some other service leaders. They were concerned that their team weren’t following all of the service standards that the leaders knew were central to bring about good outcomes for the service users. ‘The staff know what they need to do. They know the policies. They know why what the policies say is so important!’ the leaders said, ‘If only the staff would just do what we’ve asked them to do…’. We felt their passion for doing the right thing and their concern that somehow, as leaders, they hadn’t been able to help their staff team to stay closely connected with all of the best practice policies all of the time. The interaction made us reflect upon our own experience of trying to do our best as leaders.
At MyST, we work with children looked after who have been through so much in their short lives. By ten years old, life has already made many children that we meet into warriors. In this context, service leaders can feel a huge sense of responsibility to be effective, to achieve outcomes like long stable placements with no more moving overnight, never to return, with a child’s world in a cardboard box. Outcomes like healthy relationships with no more exploitation and harm at the hands of others. Outcomes like healthy bodies with no more cutting, starving, drugs and alcohol. Outcomes like going to school with no more exclusion, lack of confidence, skills and knowledge, lack of pride and aspiration.
Wanting these outcomes for children so very much invites us service leaders into gripping on to them very tightly. And yet, our experience has been that if we try to demand outputs and outcomes, they tend to resist us with a stubborn, unchanging nature. Instead, we’ve noticed that if we take care of the process of our work, the outcomes that we want arise naturally. We find that we can’t jump straight to getting the outcome, by-passing the qualities and conditions that bring the outcome about, much as our anxieties might yearn for this short cut. At MyST, we closely monitor outcomes: What actually happens for each child? Are their lives truly getting better in ways that are meaningful to them? But we monitor outcomes only to guide us as to whether or not our processes are in good shape.
As leaders, it is sometimes clear to see what our team members need to do, and yet it is so much more effective to let go of telling them ‘you need to do this’. Instead, we must create the conditions for a realisation of ‘this is what we need to do’ to arise in everyone’s consciousness. So, as leaders, holding ultimate responsibility for whether our service actually helps the children that we serve, we have learned that it is very important to use ourselves to influence our context. Can we ourselves become one of the conditions in which others come to realise ‘this is what we need to do’? After all, in a human system, we are all one of the conditions of the system.
What if leaders, with all of their roles and responsibilities, their power and position, saw themselves primarily as a condition contributing to a human system? What would this privilege in the leader’s mind? Perhaps questions like; what state am I in? What position am I taking and how does my position effect the positions of others? What am I doing with my anxiety about this service getting it right? And how am I dealing with this so that it doesn’t become passed down the line to create an anxious uptight team?
What might the ideal conditions for an effective human system or team be in our work? Some that come to mind include openness, curiosity, willingness, inspiration, persistence, humility, patience... The leaders of team systems like this are perhaps most influential by using themselves to privilege these qualities and conditions. In this way, leaders must use their clout to lead the way into being the conditions for effective work. Letting go into this is sometimes the hardest thing to do when the outcomes for children matter to us so very much. This because, to not do so can sometimes create teams preoccupied with ticking the boxes of policies, whilst missing the very spirit of the work which brings about change effectively.
Of course, we are far from the first to come to this realisation. Ghandi said it very well, if with deceptive simplicity: ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’
Jen & Jael