‘Why Leaders need to be Systems Thinkers’ webinar – recording available

Our webinar on ‘Why Leaders need to be Systems Thinkers’ took place on 30 November. If you missed it or want to watch again, the webinar is now available to view on demand.

Watch the webinar 

Listen to what our speakers had to say about the importance of management leadership in systems thinking, using the winter 2014/15 NHS ‘care crisis’ as a case study.

Our webinar panellists included Dr Paul Walley, Lecturer in Operations Management, OUBS, Kate Silvester, Managing Director, Kate Silvester Ltd and Nigel Edwards, Chief Executive, Nuffield Trust. Facilitating this virtual event was OU Associate Lecturer and MBA alumnus Elvin Box.

You can also share your views and comments about the event or topic by following us on Twitter @OUBSchool  #OU_BP

‘Why Leaders need to be Systems Thinkers’ webinar

Our free online webinar on Monday 30 November 2015, will introduce video highlights from the Business Perspectives roundtable on Why Leaders need to be Systems Thinkers. The topic is based around the winter of 2014/15 when the UK NHS experienced its biggest ever “winter crises” within the Accident and Emergency (A&E) care system. A crisis which is part of a repeated problem that occurs at the same time each year.


In this webinar, we take the views of a number of experts who have studied last year’s winter crisis and its underlying causes.  The panel strongly believe that many senior managers still have a limited understanding of the full set of underlying causes.  Hence they will not be able to solve this problem unless they develop good systems thinking skills, start to correctly diagnose problems within their system and find the most effective solutions.  Presenters will provide insights to how behaviour has to change to lead the system improvement and prevent management practices that make the problems worse rather than better.

The discussions will consider whether other organisations in both public and private sectors can learn from the experience of the winter crisis to see whether or not similar knowledge and behaviour change is needed in other sectors.

We’ll draw on these contributions from the roundtable and further develop these discussion points during the webinar, where we invite you to contribute via our live online polls and Q&A forums.

Leadership webinar – 14 May 2013

What is political astuteness? How do public leaders stand the test of tough times? Why is optimism important in inspiring hope? These questions were answered in the Leadership webinar held on 14 May 2013, in which you can see four videos capturing the highlights from the Leadership Masterclass on ‘Leadership in Tough Times: Confronting Complexity and Inspiring Hope’.

Now is the time to invest in NHS leaders

Guest blogger:

Karen LynasKaren Lynas, Head of Delivery/Deputy Managing Director at NHS Leadership Academy 

“With the NHS facing huge challenges in emergency, acute and primary care, finances squeezed and a new commissioning landscape to navigate, now is the perfect time to invest in developing leaders.”

NHS leaderhip banner

What is the thing you wish you had known before you took the job you’re now doing? If you could write a letter to your younger self about how to prepare for it, what would it say? Would it be about the skills and knowledge you needed but didn’t have − and didn’t know you needed until you started? Or about the people you would be working with and how you needed to learn a bit more about yourself to manage them well and positively? Would it be about the energy, enthusiasm, tenacity and resilience you were going to need? Maybe it would concern how to network better? Or perhaps something else entirely.

We have such a diverse range of leadership roles in the NHS that understanding the role you are about to move into can be difficult; preparing for it even harder. The truth is we haven’t yet done what most industries do routinely and what many FTSE 500 companies describe as one of their “differentiating success factors”: provide structured development to spot, nurture, train and support leaders in their organisations to prepare them for their next role.

If you are really lucky, your organisation will do this − and there have been some excellent regional initiatives supporting people in transition. But the NHS has never put industry-wide, sufficiently resourced, high-quality leadership development in place − a system that would prepare people for their next role rather than help them once they’ve moved. Until now.

Be prepared

NHS leadershipThe leadership role is complex at every level. Getting it right is tough and getting it wrong is disastrous to the people who most need our support. So the NHS Leadership Academy is attempting to change that. We have put together five national core programmes, from entry level to the most senior leadership roles in the service.

Open to all those working in health and care and NHS funded care, these programmes exist to help prepare you for your next leadership role, and successful completion leads to an award that demonstrate your readiness to do the job.

I know the questions you’re asking. So what? Why now? Accident and emergency departments are bursting at the seams, nurse staffing levels are under real pressure, GP surgeries are packed, elderly patients are stuck in hospital because social services are under pressure, finances are constrained and the squeeze is getting tighter.

Why choose now to take people away from their jobs to develop their leadership potential? What’s the benefit of investing all this money?

The answer is these challenges make it precisely the time we need to do it. This work isn’t a distraction from solving the problems we are all currently facing − it is a big part of the solution. We have a whole new architecture being led in many parts by people new to the role and struggling to find their way through what they have inherited − they need support, wisdom, knowledge and experience.

A simple solution

We have staff working in provider organisations who truly can’t continue to do more of the same − just harder and faster, while getting those around them to do the same. They need new solutions, new skills, new knowledge and new ways of leading, engaging and motivating others.

If the NHS is to survive as a service that meets the changing needs of our population, then it also needs to change to meet its own needs. I don’t think we should expect those leading our services, at whatever level and from whatever profession, to be able to do that without real support and development. That includes learning from the best in the service, from other industries and from other health systems. It includes looking at their challenges with new eyes and fresh ideas; rethinking how the way they lead can liberate and engage the people who work with them.

It is this kind of radical thinking and support that will contribute significantly to moving us from where we are now to a safer, more sustainable, more effective, response and innovative NHS.

So let’s not leave it to chance anymore − moving into a job you think you might know but have never been properly developed to do. Where you are expected to have all the answers when you barely know the right questions, or absorb through osmosis all you should know about the impact your leadership has on others. And whether that is good, bad or indifferent.

You deserve to be supported to learn with others about how together we can start to change the way we work right across the system. Invest in your staff and they’ll look after the rest − it’s that simple.

(This article was originally published on the Health Service Journal website on 20 May 2013.)

Leaders, is your organisation strategy-less?

Guest blogger:

Dr Alex WrightAlex Wright, Lecturer in Strategic Management at The Open University Business School. 

Research I have been conducting recently along with that of my colleague, Professor Peet Venter of UNISA in South Africa, has thrown up an interesting finding – the existence of the strategy-less organisation.

As strategy researchers, we tend to assume that all organisations will be doing at least some strategy-work all of the time. We accept that there will be times when the level and intensity of strategising will tail off, for example, when a major strategic initiative has been achieved and the effects of that achievement require bedding down in the organisation. However, Peet and I, independently of each other, both observed something a bit more long-lasting and possibly a bit more concerning.

We observed prolonged periods of organisational activity when strategy and strategy-related issues did not appear to influence or make a difference to what was happening in the organisations.

Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by strategy and what I do not.

I do not see strategy as restricted to a plan, as something an organisation has. If that were the case it could reasonably be argued that if an organisation has a strategic plan, then it can never be strategy-less.

Primarily, I see strategy as something people do; as practices in pursuit of some long term organisational goal or objective. In this framing, I argue, an absence of strategy-work can result in organisations becoming strategy-less, and this is what we both observed.

Looking in the strategy literature to see if anyone had researched strategic inactivity in the past, we found one paper. Andrew Inkpen and Nandan Choudhury published a paper in Strategic Management Journal in 1995 speculating that the strategy-less organisation was a very real phenomenon and called for strategy researchers to take up the baton and study the topic. However, this call has been ignored, so apart from Inkpen and Choudhury’s paper, no other piece of research has been written on strategy absence, as far as I can tell.

This is unfortunate, as our knowledge of any phenomena increases by understanding when it is not present as well as when it is.

Inkpen and Choudhury advanced the idea that strategic voids in organisations could occur for one of three reasons:

  • due to leadership ineffectiveness, i.e. leaders not engaging in strategy-work
  • due to organisations having natural work cycles, which means there will always be times when strategy-work does not take place; and
  • due to conscious decisions taken by senior managers not to undertake strategy-related activity.

I will concentrate on the first of these, leadership ineffectiveness, and relate this to what Peet and I observed.

leadership_highlightedWe both found that a lack of senior management involvement in strategy-work resulted in an absence of strategic practice in the organisations we researched. In the one I studied this seemed to be because leaders associated strategy-work with formulating strategy only and appeared to have little interest in whether the strategy they formulated was being implemented. I think this stems from the idea that strategy formulation and implementation are seen as separate activities and are the responsibility of different staff groups. Senior managers are the formulators, while middle and lower level managers and staff are the implementers. This thinking represents a separation, sometimes called a mind/body separation, first articulated by the philosopher René Descartes, who advocated a philosophical view that saw the body as subservient to the mind – the mind thought and the body acted out these thoughts. This philosophical outlook is called Cartesian thinking; and, while still influential, has been criticised and challenged in recent years for the artificial separation of thinking and doing. Why this philosophical diversion? Because this separation of thinking and doing is prevalent in much leadership theory – leaders think and followers do.

Peet came across another example of leadership ineffectiveness. The organisation he researched was enjoying huge success. It was operating in a buoyant industry and it was one of the leaders. However, Peet observed a lack of strategy-work, no one was talking about strategy and a major piece of government legislation was about to be brought in that would affect the whole industry, and yet, no consideration of this was evident in the meetings and conversations he observed. Here, a strategic void occurred because leaders were (over-)focusing on managing their success, and not paying enough attention to the longer-term. I can foresee a similar situation arising when leaders are experiencing tough times. Their focus on leading the organisation through the tough times, just as Peet’s leaders were focused on leading the success, can result in strategy-work suffering. Leading exclusively in the present can harm the organisation in the longer-term when major environmental changes are on the horizon and these are not being considered.

Strategy-less organisations, I feel, exist. I would like to hear from anyone who feels they have experienced or are experiencing life in an organisation where strategy-work is simply not being done. I am particularly keen to hear from leaders who would like to do more strategy-work, but feel the priorities they are currently grappling with do not allow them to.

Leadership quarter summary report

summary reportHere we introduce you to our third Business Perspectives summary report in the series, which concludes the leadership quarter with a rich collateral of global perspectives on leaders and leadership.

We invite you to download and share the report and send us any comments.  A similar summary report will be available following the change management quarter. If you would like to contribute your perspective towards the change management theme, please contact our Business Perspectives Editor at oubs-alumni@open.ac.uk.

Click here to download the report.

Leadership Masterclass video highlights

On 25 April, our Leadership Masterclass was successfully held in Hotel Russell in London. The event, led by Jean Hartley, Professor of Public Leadership, explored the challenges of leadership from private, public and third sector viewpoints, ranging across large and small private firms, prisons, healthcare, central and local government, and voluntary organisations. We have handpicked some video highlights from the day for you to watch, absorb and use the learning in your own context:

Jean Hartley, Professor of Public Leadership, OUBS

Caspar de Bono, Managing Director B2B, Financial Times

Sue McAllister, Director General of the Prison Service, Northern Ireland

Sir Steve Bullock, Mayor of London Borough of Lewisham

What’s the secret to being a great leader?

Guest blogger:

Sarah_PlattsSarah Platts, Open University Business School MBA Alumnus, Change Consultant at FreshNetworks 

Last year I wrote about innovation having attended an Open University Business School event on the topic, and recently I’ve just been to another one all about leadership. Here’s a quick summary of 6 questions and answers that came out of the session:

1. What do we mean by leadership?

Eyes onlyProfessor Jean Hartley took everyone through the 5 Ps:

  • Person – personal characteristics and leadership style(s).
  • Position – e.g. a position of authority often creates access to resource pools, but equally there are many leaders who don’t hold positions of formal authority.
  • Process – i.e. between a set of stakeholders, and energising and organising others.
  • Performance – achievements and skills.
  • Projection – both in terms of the qualities the leader projects to others, and which others project onto the leader.

The advice was to consider all 5 Ps as opposed to focusing on just one area.

2. What type of leadership is best?

It depends on the context, and the type of problem the leader is encountering, e.g. Rittel and Webber’s:

  • Tame problems – which although complicated are still resolvable because we’ve come across them before and know how to fix them. In these cases leadership is more about applying tried and tested approaches capably.
  • Wicked problems – which we’ve never encountered before, and are typically interlinked with so many other factors and issues as to make them incredibly complex and multi-faceted. In these cases leadership is about asking the right questions, and knowing who the right stakeholders are to be involved, and how they should be managed.

3. What skills should a leader possess?

According to Professor Hartley:

  • Strategic direction & scanning – what you need to do, and when, and the tenacity to stick to it. The leader really has to believe in it if it’s going to be a success.
  • Building alignment & alliances – i.e. the leader as a “connector”, and crucially demonstrating political astuteness – a skill which people accepted was important in Hartley’s research, despite the stigma and “dark arts” reputation of organisational power and politics.
  • Reading people & situations – e.g. alertness to different agendas and power pockets.
  • Interpersonal skills – a mixture of hard and soft skills, and crucially listening to people and properly communicating with them, as well as understanding different situations and perspectives.
  • Personal skills – self-awareness and self-control, being genuinely curious about others, and taking the time to be self-reflective and learn from mistakes and feedback.

How do people learn these skills though? According to Hartley’s research, people tend to learn most through making mistakes, and the inference was that more could be done to enhance training and development activities and programmes.

4. What’s an example of these leadership skills in practice?

The FT’s Caspar de Bono gave a particularly interesting talk which highlighted the importance of strategic direction and planning through his concept of leadership as action that is purposeful, but also creative (changing the paradigm), and courageous (i.e. you are out front, leading the way). In the FT’s case it was about listening to what customers wanted, and sticking to their business knitting while still innovating (i.e. operating broadly the same business model, but through improved digital channels and technology). The key was always to keep a clear idea of the WHAT while allowing the HOW to be more emergent, and informed by stakeholder involvement and analysis.

5. What’s the best leadership style to have?

In short: a mixture, and adapted to the particular business context in question (e.g. its size, stage of development, etc. etc.). Hay Group’s Lubna Haq identified 6 leadership styles, and asserted that the most effective leaders tend to have a minimum of 3 or more dominant / preferred ones:

  • Directive – based more on control and coercion, often more prevalent during downturns.
  • Visionary – opposite of directive and is primarily about building and selling a compelling vision.
  • Affiliative – creating harmony.
  • Participative – involving others.
  • Pace-setting – accomplishing tasks to a very high standard of excellence.
  • Coaching – focusing on the long-term professional development of others.

6. What are the key things to know about leadership?

  • A leader should live the cultural values of their organisation, and be visible and approachable.
  • Focus on achievements and also the long-term. Keep short-term issues in context.
  • You can’t please everyone – confront issues head on and make those tough decisions if necessary.
  • Think consciously about your style – is it right for the context you’re in? Is your style transformative or transactional?
  • Political astuteness is important – forget about its negative press.
  • Optimism is key – particularly during these current difficult economic and political times.

(This article was originally published on FreshNetworks on 14th May 2013.)

Register for Leadership in Tough Times Webinar, 14 May


Further to the recent successful Leadership Masterclass, we are hosting a follow up online webinar on Tuesday 14 May 19.00 – 20.00 (BST), which will include all the highlights from the recent event, drawing on the contributions of our excellent speakers and inviting contributions from our online panellists.

The hour long webinar will introduce video highlights from the event and invite delegates to participate in Q&A and interactive polls to develop learning and understanding from the masterclass which focused on ‘Leadership in Tough Times: Confronting Complexity and Inspiring Hope’. Hear what our speakers had to say about the role of leadership in transforming complex organisations, leading growth against the odds, and inspiring optimism and wellbeing while the chips are down.

Our webinar panellists include Professor Jean Hartley, Professor of Public Leadership, OUBS; Dr Caroline Ramsey, Senior Lecturer in Management Practice, OUBS; and Richard Byford, Director, ForeVu Ltd. Facilitating this virtual event is Peter Wainwright, host of our two previous Business Perspectives webinars.

We’ll draw on the contributions from our masterclass and further develop these discussion points during the webinar, and we invite you to contribute via our live online polls and Q&A forums.

Register through our event link to save your place.

If you are new to our Business Perspectives webinar events, why not check out the previous one on Strategy to get a flavour?

You can also see what delegates had to say about the event by following #OU_BP on Twitter, and get the latest updates on events, offers and thought leadership pieces by following us @OUBSchool.