More from this series

Pamela Permalloo-Bass

Meet Pamela Permallo-Bass Head of Equality & Diversity at Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust

In Conversation With…

Gerry Davis OBE

I had the pleasure of interviewing Gerry Davis OBE who has throughout his career been a dedicated advocate of person centred leadership he says "I think that leadership which is person centred will tend to be ethical". I can't wait for Gerry to write a book ..be inspired!

Gerry what is your leadership style?

I’ve got to say that my natural inclination is that of inclusive leadership, but because I am so wedded to the idea of followership, it’s true to say that I probably use different leadership styles depending on either the situation or the people.

My leadership style emerged strangely enough through the feminist movement: in the early days of my career I was fortunate to be schooled by some very dynamic women, who believed in assertiveness instead of aggression & manipulation in leadership: this was an   inclusive way where everyone could have a voice. I was fortunate to have encountered this leadership approach early in my career. I’ve observed that in many organisations that I’ve worked with over the years, the manipulative style seems to predominate.

What informed the young you in terms of your leadership style?

A significant time in my youth was when I was at college. I went to America to work at a summer camp, and it was a pivotal experience. I was 19 and a cabin counsellor responsible for about 15/16 kids, and after three weeks I was promoted to assistant head counsellor: for the next two years I went back as the unit leader.

This was really significant because it meant that I was perceived by the camp director as having leadership qualities, at age 20.  So for me that was a significant period after which I knew I wanted to be in a position to affect policy.

Gerry where do you stand on the debate of whether leaders are born or made?

I am sure there must be some personality traits with which you’re born and if one of the personal traits is a predisposition to really like people and get the best from people, then I think that’s a leadership quality we might be born with. However I do think that leadership has to be nurtured because if it was just due to nature, people would just have one style of leadership which would be based on the predispositions that they are born with. I think good leadership is about being adaptable, to consider your followers and I think that’s something you learn.

What you learn through experience is how to encourage people to follow by taking into account their needs and desires: those things become really important when you’re working with diversity and inclusion, you can’t just go with what you were born with.

What does ethical leadership mean to you?

I think that leadership which is person centred will tend to be ethical and any place I’ve been where leaders are seriously interested in the development  of their people is where I’ve seen ethical leadership.

For example, I was the chief executive of the City Challenge regeneration program, [in which the government gave certain areas £35 million over 5 years] to regenerate the area & increase the economic growth of the area by attracting inward investment.

When I went into that area [Harlesden in North west London] critically there was a general feeling amongst the people that I was not going to be around for that long anyway, probably there for a couple of years, then going onto something “bigger and better.”  That was their attitude because that was often the experience of people in disadvantaged situations: that leaders used their areas as stepping stones to better places. To me it would not have been ethical to start that process of regeneration and leave it in the middle.  My own values and ethics led me to stay for the duration of the project. I also led the continuation project and stayed there in Harlesden for a total of 10 years.

What do you think causes toxic leadership?

Some of those bankers & some of the people who are perceived as exercising toxic leadership, had at the core of what they were doing, tried to do things right for people. That’s how it started. I think that some of them started with good intentions & then got carried away with doing what they thought was possible. I worked with some  bankers  when I was on the corporate responsibility [sustainability]  committee of a major bank for 9 years and I could see there that the intentions were good: For example  there were  lending  policies  which had at their core  protecting the rain forest .

So I would say that what we get is that some people become obsessed with their own success and they actually start believing that they alone are creating all of this. So toxic leadership will always exist when people are so egocentric, because that’s when they stop listening and considering the people whom they are supposed to serve.

It does make me wonder though whether there is such a thing as ‘toxic followership’.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?

I think that we live in an age where the prevailing notion is ' my opinion is what matters the most'. For example there are so many reality shows on TV, where people phone in and vote for a particular person, based on personal likes and dislikes. So ultimately what we are losing is any kind of criteria of quality, or standards, because the ‘opinion’ is what is seen as important without any reference to criteria or facts.

So I think the challenge for leaders now is the need to be conscious and really careful, to constantly establish what constitutes quality, standards and principles.

On role models: 

I think that young people, young black people in particular, have a difficult time in terms of role models from their own ethnic groups.

I was bought up in Saint Vincent and I lived for a year with my uncle who was the chief minister of Saint Vincent at the time & it was an election year which was very interesting.  He had come up through the unions & he’d been a teacher, and I learnt a lot from him namely, 1-consistency 2- the importance of championing the socially disadvantaged in terms of the way that the system is stacked against them. I learnt that you can be in a position of power and still be a compassionate champion of people who have no power at all. So he was really my first role model. I think that young minority people who are born here don’t experience  a wide range of people who look like them in a variety of leadership /power positions. Growing up in the Caribbean or Africa there are people leading in all sectors, whether they are government ministers, educators, engineers or anything else, so it’s natural for young people to see people like themselves to emulate. Here in the UK we need more role models who are connected to the black and other minority communities.

If you were designing a syllabus for emerging leaders, the leaders of tomorrow, what would be the three core modules?  

Wow, that’s a difficult one I’ve never been asked it before. Well the first module would be like an internship module, where they would go out and experience people in different settings. This is because I want to emphasise the importance of ‘followership’; so I would like to expose students to people in various sectors, from different situations to learn how to engage people.

The second one would be something to do with planning and organising. I would want students to be able to create plans and look at the different parts of the plan and be able to say how the plan would provide the desired outcomes: but then I would want to somehow develop activities to develop flexibility in the plan to say this is how we can modify the plan bearing in mind both the people who the plan is for and  those who are going to be implementing it.

The third module would be about assessing success, assessing outcomes and feedback. Too many times I’ve  seen leaders do everything else except go back to assess and gather feedback to share with the people that they are leading as to what’s actually been achieved before they move on to the next thing: to me that feedback and that assessment of outcomes is what creates your next generation of leaders.