As the founder of Nurole, I spend a lot of time considering what makes a good board and what makes a good chairman. I set up Nurole to try to make boards better, more diverse, more open. I wanted to use the power of digital recruiting to bring the best people to the board room, so it is important to know what good, or great, looks like. I am constantly measuring my aspiration to place the right person, regardless of their background, in the right board position against the qualities of good leadership that is evident on the best boards today. When I was asked to nominate someone for the Sir Alex Ferguson leadership award (#SirAlexAward) it didn’t take me long to realise that Sir Thomas Hughes-Hallett embodies all the qualities I consider essential to be a great leader and many more.

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What makes a good leader? Being decisive and trusted.

When I discussed leadership with Thomas he identified the traits necessary to being a good leader:

“Someone who is visible, leads from the front, someone who is first in, last out. I believe in the style of leadership where people do respect you as a human, so I am not a very brutal leader but I am a very decisive one. I think it’s extremely important to be decisive, to get that blend between consultation and decision right. And then finally I think you’ve got to be trusted; it’s probably more important than anything else, which means being frank with people.”

To say that Thomas embodies these qualities would be to understate it. He was supposed to be on holiday when we met but the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, of which he is chairman, was due to be merging with another hospital. They were awaiting a final signature from the secretary of state. There was nothing to suggest it would go wrong but “it would look very odd if the chairman was in Greece just as you are about to merge with another hospital”. The merger or acquisition provides another example of how he matches his own criteria for leadership, “During this acquisition people said to me, ‘Is there a risk that we’re going to lose our jobs?’ There is only one answer to that, which is, “yes”, because anything else is a lie and no one will believe it, including me.” This frankness, in a world awash with sophistry, is a salutary reminder that clear talk wins trust. It is the cornerstone of good leadership if you are to take your team with you.

Thomas is, like the best leaders, both visible and hands-on. When we met he had just come back from going around the hospital floor. During this visit he was recognised by a cleaner, “Good morning Chairman, how are you?” which is, as he says, a sign that “I’ve got through to this person, however tenuous, I’ve managed to build a relationship.” Evidence, if any were needed, that he does not behave like his version of a bad leader, “someone who gets too far ahead of his team of good people, someone who is super-enthusiastic, clever, jumping over the top like an officer in the First World War with a useless pistol and no one following you and unsurprisingly you’re exterminated.”

Nothing Matters

Thomas did not begin working in hospitals. He started his career as a barrister, before moving to the City where he founded Enskilda and ultimately becoming Global Chair of Fleming Securities. It is telling that Thomas’s skills as a leader are not sector dependent. He is as happy in an investment bank as a charity – another sign of the qualities of his leadership. He knows what techniques to deploy and is adept at bringing experience from previous organisations to bear upon his current role, “bringing the dealing room to the hospital”. This displays a flexibility that is rare in many leaders of today.

During his time in banking he noticed “good leaders are older than you. I’ve always envied the wisdom of those who are older. I’ve always wished I’d been a little bit older so I didn’t take things quite so seriously. I think really good leaders are people that recognise that nothing really matters. The word ‘crisis’ is not a great word because it throws everyone into a panic, no one thinks calmly.”

This attitude of not getting hung up on what’s happened to move forward is brought into stark reality.

“If for some reason the secretary of state did not approve the merger this morning and it was blocked, something we’ve been working on for three and a half years, the first thing I’d do is go to the hospital and call all the staff together with the chief executive in a room, all 5,000 of them, and say, ‘Do you know what, it doesn’t really matter. It’s just a pain in the arse. Now, let’s work on what plan B is.”

Articulating the vision: what are we for?

When Thomas became CEO of Marie Curie in 2000 it was a charity with over 8,000 members of staff. It was a large organisation without a clear focus. Focus is vital to good leadership. Thomas needed to articulate a clear vision in an organisation that had a nursing branch, a hospice branch, an education branch that wasn’t educating its own nurses, as well as one of the world’s smaller but finest research institutes. Thomas had to work out what Marie Curie was for. It was not a rushed job; it took five years. But in that time he established what Marie Curie’s purpose was and got the whole staff behind it. He came up with the line that Marie Curie “gives people the choice to die at home” and as soon as he identified the faith he stuck to it rigorously. “Any business not linked to that, I closed.” Marie Curie became a sleek organisation with a defined mission. There were knock on effects: hospices changed radically and rather than being seen as somewhere you go to die they became places from which you had a 50% chance of returning home. Volunteers were trained by Marie Curie so that they could give care at home.

Just as important as what they did was what they didn’t do. For the first time, Thomas got the board to agree, in writing, what they did not do. It is striking how useful this idea of “what not to do” is. Like all the best ideas it is simple. However, it is also bold. Committing people to what they do not do takes nerve and confidence but it allows an organisation to be absolutely certain in the way they work. This is a sign of good leadership. It is a model for how good organisations are run.

It was not always popular. “We didn’t care for children.” Palliative care for children requires a fundamentally different skillset from looking after adults with cancer. There are many organisations set up to look after children and it was something Marie Curie was ill equipped to do. It was something better left for others. By clarifying what they did and did not do, what they were for, Thomas was able to ensure that everything Marie Curie did do was carried out with the utmost efficiency with around 10,000 more patients and families benefitting from its nursing care every year in 2012 than in 2000, when he joined the charity.

Developing future leaders

What takes Thomas beyond being merely a good leader is his eye to the future. This saturates every aspect of his work. He has his eye on the essence of his responsibilities to the next generation.

“First, ensuring good succession, often talked about and rarely practised, and second, making yourself entirely dispensable. Both of these traits are very unusual characteristics of a usual leader, if there is such a thing.”

Looking after the future leader, however, is not enough. To be a good leader you also have to look after the present team for your successor. “Something I’m afraid to say, and I really mean I am afraid to say, of which I am proudest is I am ruthless when it comes to people who are not performing to the level at which they are remunerated and to the responsibility that they have. I think in terms of the next generation the worst thing you can do to a successor is hand over a dysfunctional team. Every year at Enskilda we looked at our staff and every year we graded them and every year 10% had to be E, you could argue that it isn’t logical. And that E grade had to go. It was ruthless but it meant we kept our standards extremely high. You have got to be tough; if you’re in a leadership team and you’re not performing then you’re letting the whole hospital or whole charity down.”

Finding the next leaders can be harder. “You’ve got to spot them, that’s the first thing.” Which means you need to be in contact with them so that you know the future stars. “The second thing is over-promote them. Chuck responsibility at them that they never dreamed they were going to be given. You’ve got to cherish future leaders and protect them and be incredibly loyal to them. You need to give them new experience. If someone’s performing very well in a job it’s incredibly tempting to leave them in it but you mustn’t. You must move them on and broaden their experience so that they can turn into a well rounded leader.”

Thomas believes that good leadership can be taught, “And that’s the reason Paul Marshall and I have set up the Marshall Institute for Philanthropy and Social Entrepreneurship.” This is an institute within the LSE due to be launched next year. Its core aim is to improve the impact and effectiveness of private contributions to the public good. “The reality is the world needs more people to actually do something rather than just making money. I went for a walk with my daughter and she was talking about Macedonia and she said that if there was someone who could lead a group of people to go there tomorrow to use our skills to make a difference she’d go; but there doesn’t seem to be anyone to follow. It’s terribly important that we recognise that you can teach leadership to younger people.”

Sometimes the best leadership isn’t only the work you do on the ground but looking ahead, working hard to make the world a better place. Setting up the Marshall Institute shows that Thomas is one of those rare leaders capable of looking beyond the here and now. He is shaping the future: that’s why he deserves the Sir Alex Ferguson Leadership Award.

The winner of the Award is due to be announced at a ceremony on the 21st September 2015.

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