Leadership at every level

By RCM on 23 November 2018 Midwives Magazine RCM Annual Conference

Midwives takes a dive into the insights of three inspirational leaders who delivered the presentation ‘The top, the middle, and the bottom: leadership at every level’ at the RCM Annual Conference 2018.

RCM chief executive Gill Walton heralded 2019 the ‘Year of the Leader’ at the annual conference in Manchester, announcing a three-year programme to promote and develop leadership in midwives, student midwives and MSWs.

But what does it mean to be a leader? Can you be a leader at the bottom of an organisation? Is there such a thing as a good follower, as well as a good leader? And what challenges have those at the top of their profession overcome to be there?

These were some of the questions three speakers and leaders sought to address in their presentation to delegates at the RCM conference in October.

Change is possible

Community Justice Scotland chief executive officer Karyn McCluskey spent 21 years working in the police force in Scotland. Back in 2005, at a time when Scotland was regarded as the ‘violence capital of western Europe’ she co-founded the pioneering Violence Reduction Unit (VRU), helping to bring about a radical shift in focus across the country, from solely dealing with the consequences of violence, to addressing its root causes as well.

With its fundamental tenet that ‘violence is preventable – not inevitable’, the VRU has changed the agenda, redefining violence as a public health problem as much as a criminal justice one – and the result has been a massive drop in rates of homicide, with violence ‘at a 43-year low’ as Karyn explained.

A captivating speaker, she reflected on what she had learned about leading change, telling delegates: ‘I don’t care where you are in your organisation – you can do something.

‘I always say being a leader is about reimagining; the ability to shut your eyes and think: “What else could 
this look like?” “What outcomes could be better?”’

She said she had to believe ‘great change is possible’, adding: ‘I had to do something big. I had to reimagine Scotland and get everyone behind me. I had no power – I only had influence. If you can’t lead from the front – sometimes you need to lead from behind.’

Karyn said it was about ‘persuading, negotiating, influencing;’ and added: ‘Leaders are purveyors of hope. You need to be able to see around the corner and instil in people that you work with that tomorrow is going to be better than today.’

Self belief

As one of the most respected midwifery researchers in the world, Dame Tina Lavender, professor of midwifery and director of the Centre for Global Women’s Health at the University of Manchester, spoke about her personal journey, the barriers she overcame rising to the top of her profession, and her advice for those who might follow after her.

Self-doubt could easily have held her back, she explained. ‘One of the big barriers was a lack of self-belief. I want to urge everyone at the newly qualified midwife stage, don’t give up on yourself.

‘The other thing was I was quite a shy person. I always thought: “there’s no way I could stand in front of a class of midwives”, “there’s no way I could stand up and present my research”.’

As well as her overwhelming drive to conduct research to help improve mortality rates and impact women’s experience – which she acknowledges is her ‘biggest motivation’ – Tina hailed the support of incredible mentors who helped her along the way as the reason she was able to overcome those barriers. She urged those gathered before her to find their role model – but also try 
to be that role model for others.

She added: ‘To be a leader you also have to be a follower. You have to learn how to listen. You don’t always have to be in a leadership role to lead others… dare to be different. Push boundaries. That’s how you initiate change.’ She added: ‘So many people talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. You need to be a doer, and a thinker.’

Another outlook

With a totally different perspective on leadership, Mhairi McLellan, a student midwife at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, spoke about being a leader when you’re still just starting out in midwifery.

Mhairi, who co-curates The Future Midwife Blog, and is one of the Council of Deans’ student leadership programme’s ‘future leaders’, admitted that describing herself as a leader made her cringe.

She believes ‘imposter syndrome’ and ‘tall poppy’ syndrome can make it difficult for student midwives to put their heads above the parapet: ‘A lot of people are too afraid to reach their full potential or to try to be agents of change.’

She explained: ‘Often a lot of students feel “Who on earth am I to be a leader?” But leadership is vital in midwifery and I feel we have a duty to the women and families we care for to develop our leadership qualities. Perhaps the better question should be: “Who am I not to be a leader?”’

She added that it’s about relationships – empowering, innovating, collaborating. ‘You don’t need to be leading a team necessarily to be leaders. Try to see leadership in small acts that effect positive change – no matter how minor. They can have a deep and profound impact on women and maternity services, and inspire others to do the same and effect even greater change.

‘Words have such power and we must use them wisely. Absolutely it is an act of leadership when you use words which are woman-centred, which value and honour women’s experiences, especially if it means sometimes speaking a different language to people around you.’

But being a good follower is also important, Mhairi added: ‘We can’t all lead all of the time. We need to get behind those trying to effect positive change.’

She urged others surrounded by those with greater seniority and more experience, to try to find ‘slivers of opportunity’ to be leaders themselves, adding: ‘If you never try, how will you ever learn or grow? So be brave. If I can do it, you can do it too.’