Billy Boland: The answer to leadership is greater than 7.3

billy_bolandMulti-source feedback and I didn’t get off to a great start when I found out that, when it came to being a doctor, my colleagues rated me as 7.3. I think my response at the time was something like “huh?” or perhaps “uh-huh.” Or maybe “uhh…” I can’t remember. I was gathering opinions for my appraisal, but the outcome meant nothing to me.

A natural optimist, in searching for the positive I took brief delight in finding that my score was out of 8, and not, thankfully, out of 10, or worse still 100. But my brief puff of pride quickly dissipated as I learnt many other people were “7 point something” too. 7.3, 7.2, 7.4—one high flyer was rated 7.5. My professional identity seemed stifled in decimal increments. I pondered how we had all rated each of our colleagues as almost, but not quite, the best.

I wasn’t then expecting to obtain anything illuminating from my leadership feedback. How does one interpret a number? But the data obtained through the NHS leadership academy was different. Rather than giving you a score, your colleagues are invited to anonymously express their level of agreement with various statements about you and your way of doing things. The questions are structured to make it difficult for them to sit on the fence, and they’re encouraged to be decisive one way or another. There is also plenty of opportunity for them to provide verbatim feedback, so you can interpret some of the data with reference to their own thoughts about you. In addition, they don’t just reflect on your personal style, but how your work environment and organisation can impact.

Feedback like this doesn’t come along that often and it can be tricky to make sense of it. The report contains lots of information, so having a conversation with someone from the academy can help navigate your way through it. I’ve had my data for a few days now and I’m still mulling it all over. It has highlighted strengths I didn’t know I had, and areas of development that I hadn’t thought about.

So do I now understand my approach to leadership? Not completely—but I don’t think I’m supposed to right now. Otherwise what’s the point of doing the course? One thing I have learnt though is that, unlike my appraisal experience, leadership can’t be boiled down to one concept. You can’t assign a number to it, like, say, an IQ.

Leadership is difficult to define. Leaders go about their business in different ways—compare an army captain to the CEO of a charity. Each may have different qualities, but both can be effective. Leaders understand their teams and how to get the best out of them. And the best understand themselves. On balance, multi-source feedback seems a good place to start.

I’ll soon be meeting my other academy members for the first time, and the course proper begins…

I declare that that I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and I have no relevant interests to declare.

Billy Boland is a consultant psychiatrist and lead doctor in safeguarding adults at Hertfordshire Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust