Leadership for Empowered Communities – reflections on the past 10 years

By Catherine Wilton, founder and Programme Director

This year marks the 10th anniversary of our pioneering and acclaimed Leadership for Empowered and Health Communities programme. It’s a proud moment for me and other founders including Maggie Woods, John Evans and Miro Griffiths, team members, partners and alumni, to reflect on how far we’ve come, and what more there is to do, in helping leaders create a health and care system that is truly built around the question ‘what makes a good life for you?’ And in our 10th anniversary, we are looking forward to welcoming our 10th cohort (for details of how to apply please click here).

When we launched our first programme in 2012 our mission was to create a network of leaders committed to radical change and reform in the health and care system. We aimed to provide space for reflection, expert input, inspiration and motivation to stretched leaders who wanted to make personalisation a reality, but were faced with the challenges of trying to change systems and cultures from within on a daily basis. As we all know, systems generally don’t want to change.

We did not have the funding to take this work to scale, so we decided to practice what we preach about leadership – by starting small and growing our influence through networks of alumni and other like-minded people wanting to make a difference. From just £5k in start-up funding, and none of us in paid roles, we have taken the programme from a fledgling initiative to a suite of development opportunities for leaders that is now embedded into the NHS’s personalised care team. Since 2012, we have trained over 3,000 leaders, and just this year we were shortlisted for the Health Service Journal award for Best Educational Programme for the NHS.

It is difficult to quantify the impact of leadership development, but we do know, from what people tell us, and from a rudimentary network analysis, that we are making a difference. Researchers like Christakis and Fowler (1998) found that change spreads through networks like contagion, and we influence others through three degrees of separation. Christakis says you’re more likely to smoke if your friend’s friend’s friend smokes even if you’ve never met them for example.

So our approach has always been built on the idea of a multiplier effect - building a movement for change, or a ‘family’ of leaders committed to doing the right thing in the right ways. If every leader who has been on our programme influenced things for the good for just 10 people in their community, there might be 30,000 potential better outcomes we could count (3,000 leaders x 10). But if they also influenced just three other leaders, who each did something different and influenced others in turn, there is the potential for big change to happen, when you add it all up.

One of our participants who’s been part of our family from the beginning, recently told us: “I remember so well being on that ground-breaking first cohort back in 2012... For me, it was inspirational, career changing and life changing. I’m honestly still talking about it and the learning, principles and understanding that we shared 10 years later!”

And from a participant on our most recent cohort: “This course is giving me the skills, knowledge and confidence to take forward that transformative agenda in a meaningful way, to collaborate with people who use our service and crucially to better engage with people that don’t.”

In the national policy context, Personalised Care was one of the five major changes set out in the NHS Long-Term Plan. It is also part of a broader movement that has its roots in the person-centred psychology of Carl Rogers and the activism and values of the Independent Living movement. I believe that personalisation and community-building remain key weapons in our fight to reduce health inequalities, to support people to live well and to prevent, reduce or delay the need for specialist services. Personalised care means changing our relationship to citizens, seeing them as active participants in care, rather than passive recipients of services. It means we support people to thrive, and to have choice and control over the way their care is planned and delivered, based on ‘what matters’ to them.

As I stated in my recent paper for the BMJ Leader journal: leaders and policy-makers need to unleash the power of people - in the workforce and in communities - by embracing co-production, partnership working and growing collaborative, inclusive, place-based and community-literate leadership. Some of our programme alumni are doing just that, but there is a lot more to do to spread these approaches and make personalised care truly business as usual.

So help us to spread the word as we move into our second decade! Subscribe to our newsletter here and get a senior leader you know to apply for our programme – details here. Together we can make a difference. We look forward to welcoming you to the family 😉.

Catherine Wilton

Catherine Wilton

Director - Leadership for Personalised Care programmes and Deputy Director - Personalised Care, NHS England