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Superior self-insight, gravitas and cognitive agility, psychologists examine the qualities needed in the next CEO of NHS England

16 July 2021

With the recruitment for the next Chief Executive of NHS England to replace Sir Simon Stevens well underway, psychologists from the DOP have examined the qualities and skills the next leader of the country’s largest employer should possess.

Dr Hamira Riaz, clinical psychologist, VP Strategic Leadership at Volvo Group and a member of the DOP, says:

“When looking for the next CEO of NHS England I’d want candidates to have a strong track record in leadership roles of equivalent scale and scope. I would be looking for how their leadership approach has changed as their responsibilities changed over their career. I’d also look for the ability to transfer their leadership across sectors, cultures and geographies.”

Occupational psychology can help highlight the patterns and themes that characterise effective leadership at the most senior level, and Dr Riaz explained that leading NHS England is a huge role, coming with great responsibility and pressure:

“The characteristics of successful CEOs broadly fall into a few categories. They need cognitive agility and the ability to see the business from a strategic height and also in sufficient operational detail from within. They will need to translate this into a vision that everyone can understand and buy into.

“They need impact and gravitas – that personal aura and authority to lead confidently - and know when to be humble and vulnerable and balance competing demands. Also crucial are people skills, the ability to forge relationships up, down and across, from board level to the front line, and connect with everyone in their business ecosystem. Finally, willpower and understanding of when to drive forwards and when to stop and reflect, using their judgment to set the right level of ambition for the company.”

The incoming CEO will be taking over NHS England during arguably its toughest time ever, as it looks to emerge from the pandemic and tackle a growing backlog, coupled with increasing demands and shrinking budgets. The type of person to lead an organisation through that has to be pretty special, says Dr Riaz:

“Superior self-insight is crucial. There are no perfect CEOs so you’d want someone who works with external experts to understand their personal strengths, gaps and dark side characteristics. Undertaking a personal resilience audit is key, working closely with specialists to look at psychological, physical and social resilience, ensuring effective coping strategies are in place for those moments that count most.

“Finally, it can be seen as a cliché but a leader is nothing without their team, so they need to be strong leaders in their own right, who make optimal use of their license to operate but also invoke the permission to challenge upwards when necessary.”

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