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Becoming an effective care leader
Attitudes, skills and techniques

Jonathan Cunningham explores the features of effective care leadership and the essential skills that all care leaders need to develop.

The social care sector is in perpetual crisis and under increasing pressure to deliver a higher quality of care. Yet, as we all search for the ‘silver bullet’ to put it right, the solution may be under our noses in the development of effective leaders.

It’s time to lead

Social care, its employees and clients crave effective leadership. The Care Quality Commission has identified that visible, top-down leadership is the most defining factor on the quality rating of care provision. This comes down to investment in quality recruitment, selection, training and nurturing of senior leadership teams. To survive and thrive in today’s environment, it’s time to take leadership development seriously.

Leaders or managers: that is the question

Put simply, you can differentiate between managers and leaders because, ‘managers do things right, whilst leaders do the right things’. Managers tend to implement processes and systems provided to them. They can be highly-effective and efficient, but this isn’t care leadership.

Leaders are different, they show people another way, another route. Leaders present a vision of an exciting new world, they inspire, enthuse and motivate; they are driven, innovative and on a continuous journey of learning.

Leaders can infuriate and irritate as they attempt to turn their organisation to a new direction. But they are courageous and brave risk-takers that don’t shy away from difficult decision-making. Leaders are not managers, yet leaders need managers in the way a car’s steering wheel needs an engine to get it to its destination.

Attributes of an effective care leader

What are the attributes of an effective leader?


Leaders see a new place that isn’t where they are now. They identify when the status quo is not acceptable and will not deliver the desired outcomes. Leaders describe their vision in detail and set the pathway and project management to reach it. This is the start of transformational change.


A leader lives and dies by their integrity. Integrity is a beautiful quality that may never be compromised. It builds trust in the team that, come what may, they will do the right thing. A leader’s integrity may be tested but their moral compass will see them through. However, be warned, once a leader’s integrity has been damaged, tainted or soiled, they lose their license to lead.


Staff will not buy into a new vision without a leader full of passion. This is the fire in the belly, the fuel that will sustain the drive to achieve the goal. Teams have to become enthused and this will only happen through a passionately driven leader.


Leaders need a lot of energy because sustaining effective leadership demands physical, emotional and mental energy. Leaders need to be fully aware of this and take time to maintain high energy levels, setting in place effective strategies to achieve and maintain the required level of energy.


Leadership is not easy and the leadership journey is frequently lonely and challenging. Having resilience is a critical feature of an effective leader. To maintain high resilience, leaders require high levels of self-belief, the ability to remain positive, maintain a healthy perspective and use positive references, such as ‘well, we’ve faced these challenges before and we’ve always done well’. The ability to switch off is also an important characteristic, plus leaders need to allow their brains to wander to remain strong.

Values and standards

Effective leaders are driven by an inner compass of moral courage that upholds their values and standards. These values and standards run through them and should never be compromised. Good leaders involve their whole organisation in the creation of these essential foundation stones of standards. Ultimately, the standards you are prepared to walk past are the standards you accept.


Effective leaders consistently display the same effective behaviours. They are emotionally intelligent, recognise best practice and establish an internal heartbeat within their organisation that delivers quality care. They are also predictable, reliable and consistently effective in all that they accomplish.

Skills and techniques of effective leaders

The inherent qualities of an effective care leader can only go so far. In addition, they require a powerful toolkit of techniques and skills that allow them to achieve what they do.

Effective morning routine

It may not seem obvious but successful leaders from all walks of life share one thing in common: a ‘super-charged’ morning. A quick internet search can bring up the morning routines of highly-successful people, but they commonly include:

  • Getting up early and working, eg. emails/reports.
  • Exercise.
  • Eating a good (low sugar) breakfast.
  • Meditating and allowing ideas time to develop.

Maximising productivity

We all need to squeeze every bit of value out of the day. Efficient care leaders recognise this and have powerful techniques to get more out of the same 24-hours we all have available. Five productive steps to get more of your day can include:

  • Make a to-do list of no more than five things.
  • Ruthlessly tackle one thing at a time.
  • Switch off from the internet. Avoid distraction.
  • Exercise, eat well and get sleep.
  • Day dream and allow your subconscious time to soak.

The power of delegation

We all struggle to delegate, but this is the single greatest area that needs to be mastered. Realise that you can’t do it all yourself and consider these five steps.

Select the task to delegate. Are you delegating down (routine easy tasks) or delegating up (more complex projects)?

  • Take time out to explain the task to the selected member of staff.
  • Explain the context of the task. Why are they doing it – for what reason?
  • Define how often you will both meet to discuss progress.
  • Define the desired outcome and performance metrics.

Reducing procrastination

We all put off the things we don’t wish to do, it’s human nature. However, by recognising the power of taking action, you will be more effective as a leader. Consider these steps to reducing procrastination.

  • Stop over-thinking.
  • Make a list of a maximum of five things.
  • Set a date/time in your diary to achieve certain tasks.
  • Set a deadline and inform someone to hold you accountable.
  • If it’s a particularly difficult task, or one you’ve been avoiding for a while, consider rewarding yourself for completing it.

Defusing conflict

We all have to deal with conflict. Those who are in-touch with their own emotions, keep their ego in check and learn to consider the other person’s view will be more successful at dealing with conflict situations. Consider these powerful phrases used in succession to defuse most conflict situations:

  • First, acknowledge the other person’s view by saying ‘I respect that’.
  • ‘I appreciate where you are coming from’.
  • ‘I agree with you’.
  • ‘How can we resolve that?’.
  • ‘Let’s move this ahead, how can I help you?’.

Social care needs more leaders

Effective leaders are nurtured, not born. Like all skills and talents in life, effective leadership is something that can be taught but must be continuously practised in order to improve. An inspirational leader can have an immeasurable effect on their organisation. More importantly, residents and clients receive quality, personalised care, delivered by an effective team.

All organisations, big or small, must recognise that they need to continually invest in the leadership development of their care team. Outstanding leaders create more leaders. As social care struggles with the challenges of shrinking resources, it is time to expand the leadership pool and maybe this is the ‘silver bullet’ we all seek.

Jonathan Cunningham MBE is the owner of Rosebank Care Home, Registered Manager of Birkdale Park Nursing Home and Managing Director of STORM Consultancy. Email: Twitter: @JCGlobalSpeaker

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