Some things are just too heavy for Superman to lift

Heroic leadership has had its day. It is a notion that doesn’t work in complex systems. It can also have dangerous side effects. From major corporate failures in the US to tinpot dictatorships. Commentators and researchers such as Beverly Almo-Metcalfe have been suggesting this for some time and that a new approach to leadership is more effective in the 21st Century. One that focuses on distributed leadership, underpinned by core values such as dignity, respect and trust.

Not everyone agrees. The Health Service Journal probably reflects the chatter around the NHS as it seems to constantly question where a new Superman will come from to rescue NHS England and, by some feat of heroism, the whole of the NHS. Who will this new Superman be, they seem to ask, who will wrestle the monsters of demand, cost effectiveness, fragmentation into submission?

My advice. Stop looking  – as the Flaming Lips once wrote:

“Tell everybody waiting for Superman
That they should try to hold on best they can
He hasn’t dropped them, forgot them or anything
It’s just too heavy for Superman to lift”



Fortunately, the time could not have been better for a new type of distributed leadership in the NHS. This is one where leaders work with an adaptive style, moving beyond pace setting and directive styles, to bring in affiliative, coaching and partnering skills too. I spoke to a bunch of new Graduate Trainees this week and was able to point to two seminal reports that will shape the zeitgeist.

The first was the Berwick Report. What a great report here.


Like the phenomenon of Notes from a Small Island – where Bill Bryson helped us realise how brilliant Britain is –  here was an external view of everything we take for granted. Among the findings in the report, three things stood out for me.

  • the distributive leadership and commitment of staff in the NHS.

“Your nation’s commitment to health care as a human right and to healing as a shared mission is second to none in the world. And all of that is possible through you; only through you..”

Don Berwick’s Letter to NHS Staff

  • the need to focus on skills for improvement and leadership at every level in the NHS. This will make us a real learning organisation.


  • that we need to measure everything better and in real time. We all know that this is an essential part of improvement science

The second was the Michael West study into NHS Cultures, here. This is worth a whole blog in itself and everyone should read the summary document. That blog will follow.  For me, the research lays the foundation upon which the new NHS system will need to be based. Here is a great quote from it:


Many NHS staff – from the blunt end to the sharp end – demonstrate every single day the values of safety, civility, and compassion, providing the highest quality of care to patients even in challenging circumstances. Their excellent work must be celebrated. More than that, their values must be continually reinforced through the commitment and actions of leaders.

Professor Michael West

In my trust, we are aiming to become a world class learning organisation. We also believe in leading from every seat. We have a long way to go yet, but the green shoots are everywhere amongst the cracked earth of cost improvement and reform.

Fundamentally, when it comes to it, we need leadership from every seat in the NHS, The nurse leader staying on to support her team and make sure a patient can die at home because she has the expert knowledge of the specialist equipment in place.  The receptionist walking 5 miles through the snow to make sure the healthcentre is open on a winter’s day. The manager putting 900 staff through a programme that focuses on value based leadership because she thinks they need to know. The speech therapist marketing services to schools to ensure the kids get the right provision – then being there when a troubled child pulls a knife and can be talked down. The consultant running and arranging an international conference on stammeting and stigma. The primary care mental health teams putting patients first and working extra shift to assess patients and meet commissioner expectations. The equality manager challenging preconceptions in public meetings and being challenged back. The clinical leaders tackling poor practice through support and education – putting themselves in the firing line. The line manager throwing a party to celebrate 25 years service for a member of staff. The Chief Executive saying sorry I got it wrong. The finance manager working extraordinary hours to meet external deadlines and helping staff through tough times. The prison health team making prisoners carers not just offenders and showing this to the world…..all examples of leadership in my trust.

No superman was required. Just the leadership of committed and values driven staff, working towards a common goal.  So perhaps if you see Superman, tell him the weight is too heavy for him to lift alone. But together? Anything is possible.