Twitter has blurred the boundaries of leadership – so be yourself

Twitter has blurred the boundaries of leadership – so be yourself

I recently collared Rob Webster, chief executive of Leeds Community Healthcare, on Twitter and asked him to write a post about leadership and social media.  Rob is a fabulous tweeter and you can follow him @RobWebster_LCH.  This is what he said:

I was speaking at the first ever NHS Values Summit in Leeds last November. It was an event with lots of surprises – I had to follow a flash mob of older people doing street dance and engage hundreds of people from across Leeds – partners, carers, colleagues, citizens young and old. Nothing would ground the crackling electricity generated by the flash mob like a middle aged bloke in a suit. Off the cuff, I began by saying:

‘I am Rob and I am the Chief Executive of Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust. I am not just that though. I am the son of a father with Alzheimer’s; a father to a son with a learning disability; a brother to someone who committed suicide. I want to talk about what I value.’

The electricity kept flowing, the connection remained.

Joining the Twitter revolution – I started using Twitter over a year ago. I was spurred into action by my friend Dean Royles, director of NHS Employers, who had a strategy for driving better communication and engagement with the NHS and was starting to get a real voice using the medium. As someone who naturally seeks to collaborate, communicate and influence, it made sense to me to join the Twitter revolution.

I had three loose objectives when I started: to raise awareness of my Trust, driving better engagement with our partners; to lobby about healthcare issues, particularly from a community perspective; and to demonstrate my leadership and values in ways that could influence others. Along the way, it seemed to me that I should do all I could to support local businesses and all things Leeds too.

Twitter is a gift to every leader – since then, there have been excellent pieces by NHS CEOs and leaders describing how and why you should use Twitter – four recommended ones would be Dean Royles blog, Lisa Rodriguez in the Health Service Journal Health Service Journal, Mark Newbold in the Guardian Guardian, and Victoria Betton on this blog.

I won’t rehash the themes here – save to say Twitter is a gift to every leader – it flattens hierarchies, increases access, gives you support from experts and thousands of followers when you need it, provides up to date official (and unofficial) news and, when used properly can increase your reputation, the reputation of your team, the reputation of your organisation and the reputation of the NHS.

Following and leading – achieving this – and I am not there yet – requires not just leadership but ‘followership’ too. Followership is a serious part of leadership theory – nothing gets done by leaders alone and all leaders are followers. We need to understand why people choose to follow someone, and their characteristics – a nice article about this here).  Followership is also one of the fundamentals of Twitter, in a very real sense. Without followers you are tweeting into the wind.

Be yourself – one of the early pieces of advice that I took to heart was that you needed to be yourself on Twitter – it is important to share something of your personal passions and your interests outside work. This is no different from leadership in the ‘real world’ but it is a difficult concept for HR teams across the NHS – if you are tweeting about the new record by Goat or a Calexico gig, how is that work? And how does it raise the profile of your organisation or fit with its mission? What happens if everyone starts doing this? Fortunately, guidelines are emerging that cover the spectrum of organisational needs. From a complete ban (many with ‘ostrich’ guidelines, heads stuck deep in the sand) to freedom within the rules of professional organisations (some great examples from bodies like the NMC).  This emergent practice will consolidate in time. Right now, live your values on Twitter, as in real life.

The value of stories – this advice on being open is also something that brings a real personal test – judgement on how much you give of yourself to aid the real objective that you want to achieve. It’s something that has caused me to fundamentally question my approach to communication. Over time I have moved on from being very focused on issues and facts, recognising these as being essential but not sufficient, and supplemented them with stories about patients and families. On occasions, I have been that patient, that family has been mine.

Making it personal – on Twitter, I have been comfortable in talking at times about how my son George has been flourishing in secondary school. Because I am a Personal Fair and Diverse champion; and someone who values treating everyone as an individual; and because my direct experience of schools and healthcare and inclusion has been mostly positive. This is despite my real fears that George would find transition to High School tough. Many children with Down Syndrome do. It also allows me to shout about how fantastic my son is – something every parent revels in.

I am less able to talk about my dad’s recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis and the pain of my brother’s suicide. That’s a personal choice I make in everyday life too – less painful or exposing than talking about my passions – Manchester City, my deep love of music, food and the arts.

Blurring the boundaries – all of this forms a small part of my Twitter experience. You are as likely to see me talking about Leeds Community Healthcare, engaging directly with staff and partners, promoting great work, debating NHS developments and shouting about my passion for values-based leadership.

This mixture helps connect with people, which drives leadership and followership and keeps people following me on Twitter. Taking personal risks of exposing my personal experiences makes me more real. It blurs the boundaries that we artificially create about who we are at work and at home so things become clearer.  This is part of a leadership approach that aims for something magical to happen – the leader as steward, supporting people to drive change.

Harnessing shared values – change is desperately needed. We are all connected to the NHS. When the Francis Report came out, I felt guilty about what had happened. I have never been there, have not been involved and don’t know any of the staff or families affected. This shared value of the NHS is so strong that my only response was to feel a powerful sense that this cannot happen again. Other industries would love to be able to harness such power and energy.

While the rules of Twitter and Social Media are forming, I want to take every opportunity to harness that energy. That takes judgement, courage and a willingness to give something of myself. A frightening prospect – but one that could help me in my ambition to be a values-based leader, who runs an organisation that is owned by its staff, accountable to its public and delivering the best possible care.

Thank you to Rob for this guest post. I’d love to hear what you think about Rob’s musings about leadership, boundaries and social media. What are your expectations about online attitudes and behaviours from senior people in the NHS?


Tweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditShare on TumblrShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Share on FacebookPin on PinterestFlattr the author


  1. Great post!

    Communicate not just broadcast! Allow the flow of information to come back to you as well as out – and that means some form of engagement with those who tweet you back.

  2. Love this. It is so important to see the human side of NHS leaders and this shows us exactly how to do it.

  3. Fantastic thoughts and should be compulsory reading for all NHS leaders to instill the value of social media to the NHS.

    My favourite quote is: “Right now, live your values on Twitter, as in real life”. How true and important this is for us.

    Thanks Rob and thank you Victoria for sharing this.

  4. What a fantastic post… I found myself nodding vigorously all the way through. Thank you Rob.

    Last year I chaired an RCGP conference debate about doctors and the health sector using social media. I asked for a show of hands in the room of around 150 to indicate how many of the GP’s used split personalities on Twitter – a different personal account ethos to their professional profile. More than half raised their hands.

    There are understandable concerns about blurring the work-life boundaries for all of us, but perhaps none moreso than doctors and nurses? But your comment: “Over time I have moved on from being very focused on issues and facts, recognising these as being essential but not sufficient, and supplemented them with stories about patients and families. On occasions, I have been that patient, that family has been mine” is so very valuable. Surely there is no better way to ensure that our health system displays humanity in its care than for those who give the care to acknowledge that they are also patients, carers, family and learners?

    If you have reasonable personal ethics, indicating your personal experiences to make a powerful point on social media channels shouldn’t be a problem. If you like to swear, be rude or vindictive to others, have unsociable personal addictions and when you post, something inside you cringes… maybe that’s a catalyst for you to consider some personal and professional reflection?

    Thanks again Rob and David… keep up the great work!

    Sharon Alcock

    Health Journalist, daughter of a man who died with Alzheimers, mother of two teenagers with the usual sugar addictions and sister to a nurse with an eating disorder.

  5. Really good to read this. Real person shines through in a thoughtful way. And that’s what I like to see in a leader.

  6. Thanks for all the feedback – always good to hear views of others


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *