Joyful leadership

Every profession including healthcare has its great leaders; charismatic, high profile, some even adored. But they are not the only great leaders.  Some great leaders are humble, kind, respectful and quietly making the world a better place.

Most people, most of the time are neither saving the world nor exploiting it. [Badaracco]

The NHS is filled with leaders at all levels of the service making decisions every single moment of the day – the sum of which are a hundred times stronger than the acts of those that receive the public recognition.  These people are trying to solve important and sometimes what feels like impossible problems.  The every day problems that are messy and complicated; not having the time to do a good job, not having time to talk to patients, not having the time to reflect and think about what is working and what is not, and not enough time to sort out the staffing and resource issues everyone faces.

The every day problems are not solved by quick, decisive directives from the top, they take time in themselves.  They are addressed by leaders who build a shared purpose, engage with others and listen to their staff and patients.  Because the every day problems may not go away quickly then there is an imperative to make the day to day as joyful as it can be.  It calls for perhaps a kind of ‘joyful leadership’.

What does joyful leadership mean? 

These leaders pays attention to creating ‘joy at work’.  They also pay attention to the way they behave and how they want others to behave.  This includes being humble, kind, positive and respectful.  Many may assume that positive leadership is ‘nice’ and weak, rather than necessary and courageous.  That it might get in the way of getting the job done.

People had this lazy opinion that he’s too nice and they see kindness as weakness, but it’s the most unbelievable strength if you use it in the right way

This quote is about Gareth Southgate in a recent article in the Guardian found here. (I know I am picking up on the much talked about world cup here but its too good a quote to not share it).

Creating ‘joy at work’ is not just about having fun as the term suggests, although it doesn’t preclude having fun it is far more than that.  For me it is about really caring about your staff, taking the time to find out about them and helping them build on and make the best use of their strengths.  It is about helping people work well together and working things through together, respecting everyone’s views as equal.  Successful leaders do not just think they should be caring and kind they intuitively are.  It is crucially about how to help people find the precious resource of time.  To make dedicated time for people to work on things they enjoy together.  It is also about saying thank you and creating a culture of positivity in the workplace.

I have never felt the need to be an aggressive leader, never felt the need to be punitive or to bully people into doing their jobs.  I have concentrated on being me, its much easier being you than trying to be something or someone you are not.  And being me is to be kind, being me is recognising that I don’t know everything and that I need people around me who can talk to me, share their ideas and their concerns and who will know that I will listen to them.

Bringing ‘joy at work’ also fits with ‘Safety II’ which as you know is all about learning from when things go well.  Identifying what works also means that you can see how brilliant the people around you are – which then leads to a lot of saying thank you and celebrating what they are achieving every day.

Safety does not happen if you are negative, shout at people, blame people, keep telling people they must stop making mistakes.

I have come to believe that safety or as we prefer to call it ‘working safely’ is so much more that projects, QI, or safety improvement programmes or even necessarily new ideas, and innovations.  For all (patients and staff) when things go wrong – as Sidney Dekker says – it should be about finding out who was hurt, what they need and whose obligation it is to meet that need.  And as Eric Hollnagel says safety is about finding out what works as much as what doesn’t, replicating and optimising what is already working and removing blame from error.

For us in the Sign up to Safety team, working safely is about:

  • good leaders who listen, who care and who set the tone for their organisation
  • everyone wanting to learn, wanting to be curious about how things work
  • people who can expertly investigate when things go wrong using human factors, behavioural and safety science
  • all of us developing the kind of relationships that we all want to have where we are able to speak up, be heard and be listened to

Working safely is ultimately about the way we behave.  It helps if you are kind, respectful and supportive of people.  For me kindness, listening, empathy and creating joy at work will take you further than anything else.


Joseph L Badaracco JR, (2002) Leading Quietly Harvard Business School Press