Diversity needs to be viewed as a strategic priority by organisations; the key elements necessary for cultures of inclusion are also associated with high-quality health care. But it is the practice of inclusive leadership that is critical, every day and at every level of the health and care system to make it a reality.
It is the practice of inclusive leadership that is critical, every day and at every level of the health and care system to make diversity a reality.
So what type of leadership does this require? The practice of compassionate leadership involves distributing leadership power to wherever expertise, capability and motivation sit within organisations. It means paying close attention to the people you lead, understanding the situations they face, responding empathetically and taking thoughtful and appropriate action. Importantly, it means progressing equality, valuing diversity and challenging existing power imbalances.
In his first speech in July, Matt Hancock, the new secretary of state for health and social care, said he wanted to drive cultural change to create "a culture of mutual respect where everyone is valued for what they contribute. Fewer hierarchical outdated rules." That statement is welcome, but it will also need those leadership behaviours to be modelled by staff at the centre of the system including the Department of Health and Social Care and its arm's length bodies. The NHS England staff survey results published in March shows similar results to the NHS-wide staff survey, where more than one in five staff said they had been bullied, harassed or abused in the past year.
To further develop the workforce and encourage greater diversity, leaders and managers also need to consider how they can attract and retain talented people from outside health and care. As a senior manager in a large NHS trust, I once appointed a new member of staff to my team from a retail background. Several of my managerial peers expressed surprise and a couple were openly critical of my decision. They expressed considerable concern that without an NHS background the person would struggle to do the job and to appear credible to the team. They did not appear to see any value in bringing different work experience into the organisation. Typically, the job specifications of posts we advertised required a minimum of five years' NHS experience, even for an administrative role that arguably didn't require any health sector experience. The new member of staff soon became a strong, high-performing member of the team, and with his retail experience he rightly focused on the needs of his 'customers', including staff and patients, to drive better outcomes.
Returning to the words of Maya Angelou: "In diversity there is beauty and there is strength". I believe that we owe it to the communities we serve and to the staff we lead to actively champion diversity through the practice of our everyday leadership.
At this year's annual conference and exhibition, diversity and the leadership challenge will be addressed in a plenary session on Tuesday 9 October, with key speakers Michael West, Baroness Dido Harding and Patricia Miller.