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Evolve, evolve, evolve; a call to action to all leaders in the healthcare industry

Challenges for tomorrow's leaders

Philip Atkinson
By Philip Atkinson 

Leonardo Da Vinci was the last great polymath. Over five hundred years ago he was the master of all of the world’s existing knowledge.

He is, of course, well known as an artist, and potentially the artist of a recently discovered nude Mona Lisa. He was also a leading expert during the Renaissance in anatomy, architecture, music, botany and physics. As an engineer he designed the first helicopter 450 years before its time. Since then the world has become more complicated. No one person can be master of everything and the pace of change today has never been greater.

Organisations have traditionally responded to complexity by establishing a hierarchical structure. Managers succeeded through a basic command and control model, where success was defined by knowing more than the people ‘below’ them, or an ability to control and own information. That is no longer possible or desirable.

In fact, the skills that got the industry to where we are today are not the skills we need for the coming continuous waves of change.

Organisations, teams and individual leaders need new mindsets, capabilities and skills to be fit for the future. That’s why many leading pharma organisations are currently going through a transformation to become more agile, driven by leaders who have a greater self-awareness.

We are well aware of the many external pressures for change from technology, regulatory, political and payer environments. It’s more than ‘VUCA’ [volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity]; for leaders in the sector it can be overwhelming. Whole new departments and businesses have been created within the last few months, and people are being hired now for their mindset and potential to lead parts of the business that do not yet exist.

Professor Brian Smith quoted Ernest Hemingway in the January issue of this journal. He quoted how people become bankrupt: “Gradually, then suddenly.” Business models become ‘unfit’, in the evolutionary sense of not fitting their environment, and so succumb to competition. The same can be said when looking at Talent – or indeed oneself. We all have a responsibility or indeed a survival pressure to constantly keep learning and adapting to the changing environment.

In their book, ‘Immunity to Change’, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey look at leaders’ attitudes to complexity. “When we experience the world as ‘too complex’ we are experiencing a mismatch between the world’s complexity and our own at this moment. There are only two logical ways to mend this mismatch – to reduce the world’s complexity or to increase our own.”

The first evolutionary step therefore is to increase our own ability to deal with so many complex issues. We must have a greater self-awareness and in turn a greater mastery of our own patterns of behaviour. So much of our daily lives involves being ‘reactive’ to stimuli. We are constantly busy with emails, budgets, meetings. To date we have been defined by our outputs. The familiar greeting when refuelling with more coffee is: ‘I’m good, thanks, I’m really busy...’

Table 1

The adage used to be that people were hired for their technical skills and then fired for their soft skills. Sophisticated soft skills or, more correctly, ‘core skills’ are now the new competitive advantage, and talent is being hired for its mindset and ability.

Technical skills can be learnt, particularly if they don’t even exist yet! Some pharma companies are now using psychometric tests to identify whether you have a Fixed or Growth mindset, as a predictor of success in this new world. Many other companies are using the Leadership Circle Profile as a model to help individuals to develop greater self-awareness and chart the path to becoming an Agile Organisation.

At a recent HR Conference, TogetHR in Basel, a seven-point manifesto for change was produced that identified a greater set of ‘core skills’ as the key to competitive advantage – for organisations as well as individuals. Coaching was cited as one core skill that today’s effective leaders can benefit from.

Cambridge University has just established a new school of Sustainable Leadership that focuses on leadership core skills, purpose and behaviours. This is the new MBA.

In today’s fast-changing world, it’s not what you know anymore that counts, because often what you know is old. It’s how fast you develop, grow and adapt. That skill is priceless. And that’s the challenge for tomorrow’s leaders – to have a better evolved mindset, capabilities and behaviours to succeed.

To close, let’s call upon Brené Brown: “We desperately need more leaders who are committed to courageous, wholehearted leadership and who are self-aware enough to lead from their hearts, rather than unevolved leaders who lead from hurt and fear.”

If we are to keep driving this industry of ours to deliver better outcomes for patients and society then my call to action is for us all to keep growing.... We must evolve, evolve, evolve.

The next TogetHR conference will take place in Basel in June, see

Philip Atkinson is passionate about helping individuals, teams and organisations to grow. He has over 25 years’ experience in developing high-performing teams at Sanofi, Novartis and Roche. He welcomes comments and questions at

8th April 2019

Philip Atkinson is passionate about helping individuals, teams and organisations to grow. He has over 25 years’ experience in developing high-performing teams at Sanofi, Novartis and Roche. He welcomes comments and questions at

8th April 2019

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Oxford University Press publishes over 100 prestigious, highly cited, and authoritative medical journals, many in collaboration with some of the...