Leadership qualities

In this section:

  • What distinguishes leaders from managers in alcohol hidden harm?

First steps

Work with a group of colleagues to draft two job descriptions: one for a leader of an organisation which runs alcohol and/or drug services and one for someone to manage an alcohol hidden harm service. In small organisations this role may be filled by the same person, but in medium to large organisations this role is likely to be undertaken by two different people. In your discussions, consider which are the qualities managers and leaders have in common, and what makes leaders distinct from managers?

Ask yourself, what stage are you at in the development of your service? Is leadership more important to you than management at this stage? Where can you go to for leadership whatever stage you are at?

Leadership qualities in alcohol hidden harm: Not everyone agrees that leadership and management are distinct from one another. However, in our work with the Comic Relief funded projects on alcohol hidden harm we became aware of some key differences. The most successful projects were hosted by organisations where leadership was clearly identifiable.

In interviews with leaders, managers and, staff of the Comic Relief funded projects, it became apparent that a leader’s role is to keep in mind the needs of the clients/potential clients, even where this conflicts with professional opinion or the interests of staff. . Managers, on the other hand, were primarily concerned with getting things done on a day to day basis, making sure everyone had the resources they needed to make the service as efficient for clients and staff as possible

Leadership was described as:

getting things done, remembering what you are trying to achieve and for whom.

Another interviewee gave her answer in the form of a question: How do we make sure we deliver the outcomes we set out to deliver, rather than the model of care we put forward? So when the model or the therapeutic approach is too rigid, making sure the aim of what we were trying to do is kept in mind, so we are led by the needs of the child rather than the model of delivery.

Leadership is also about being strong and taking tough decisions:

.....modelling behaviour you seek in others. Do what you say you will do. Have clear expectations and manage it if they are not fulfilled. Organisations should not exist just to be happy places to work.


‘....giving direction, stability, a person or team or structure which listens, supports and guides and influences projects when needed, but is not overbearing.

It was also clear that leaders anticipated and addressed challenges to the effective delivery of services, whether because of national policy changes, local structural variations, or client needs.

Case study: Contentious decisions

A large drug service already had some workers whose work included family support for drug and alcohol misusers and for hidden harm among young people, but there was no specific service supporting families where alcohol was the primary substance misused. At an early stage the Chief Executive decided that Comic Relief funding would be used to provide family support specifically for alcohol misusing adults and their children, rather than ask existing family support workers to broaden their scope to include alcohol. This decision was contentious at the time but was taken in order to get the best learning from the opportunity and to ensure the alcohol misuse was not lost amongst the ‘noise’ of other substance misuse issues. On reflection, managers agreed that if this decision had not been made at the beginning, it would almost certainly have been introduced retrospectively, as this approach had enabled the service to develop a clear specialism which was valued by clients and by partners.

Leaders of two organisations running effective Alcohol Hidden Harm (AHH) services described the importance of passion in leaders to help clients access the services they need for their families. One said:

It’s about the P-word, being passionate about why you are there. We are really committed to working with marginalised groups of people and a long history of working with mums and dads whose drug use interferes with their parenting..and with working with those who find it hard to ask for help. If you are a man who drinks [pause] if you are a woman, it’s worse; if you are a mother and, heaven forbid, if you are pregnant. [pause] The way society views all of this pushes you away from seeking help. For us it’s about pushing down those barriers, especially for this alcohol work, helping them to hurdle over them [barriers] and access the kinds of services they have a right to expect.

And the other said, about helping practitioners give of their best:

It is enthusiasm, passion, vision, engagement – communicating ‘why are we here?’ what binds us together what are we trying to achieve, how do we become greater than the sum of the parts? Leadership brings out the community of social care, so that individuals feel supported to do their best.” Although the most successful leaders in the Comic Relief funded projects were very experienced, and had clearly learned from what some described as past ‘mistakes’ they also showed leadership by listening: “Leaders don’t know all the answers, they are there to elicit responses.

In the most effective projects, leadership was not only identifiable among chief executives or senior managers. Leadership was also identifiable among practitioners working with clients on a day-to-day basis. There was clear evidence that this happened in projects which were embedded in organisations which encouraged and developed aspects of leadership in their junior managers and staff. There was culture of listening to, and acting on ideas and information emerging from practice.

However, when asked about specific leadership training, respondents often described courses which focused on management skills rather than leadership. To some extent this reflects the findings of a report for the Scottish Executive (Zwanenberg, 2003) on leadership in Social Care and which championed the use of action learning sets for the development of leadership among professionals across different sectors of public services, rather than formal training.

Action learning

Action learning is generally understood to be a reflective process whereby the participant reviews their own actions and experience in order to improve performance. Participants develop knowledge through actual actions and repetitions rather than through traditional forms of training and instruction. Listen to the audio clip which describes what action learning is and what it is for.

When action learning is done alongside others, in small groups these are called action learning sets. Action learning is a form of continuing professional development which enables each person to reflect on and review real world actions they have taken or are considering taking and the learning points arising, with feedback from those in a similar position. This should then guide future action and improve performance especially in new fields where innovation is inevitably part of the task.
Action learning sets can meet face to face or virtually through e-mail or teleconferencing. The latter reduces costs and time commitment although it may be easier to build trusting relationships if the group meets face to face at least once. Participants in action learning open themselves to a form of critical enquiry which can and should challenge both their own mindset and the culture of their organisation so it is vital to trust one another. Many action learning sets are managed by a facilitator or coach who can introduce problems and issues, suggest ways to discuss them and redirect the discussion when the group gets stuck in one aspect of a problem, although groups can also be self managing. For more on Action Learning Sets see: http://www.odi.org.uk/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/6417.pdf and http://www.actionlearningassociates.co.uk/cross-sector-sets.php And McGill, I., & Brockbank, A. (2004). The Action Learning Handbook. London: Routledge

In practice we observed that leaders of alcohol hidden harm services

  • Ensured staff and volunteers had access to
    • appropriate training.
    • independent clinical supervision.

  • Created environments where staff and volunteers could
    • develop a high level of skill.
    • be flexible and creative when working with clients.
    • reflect on and improve their own practice.

  • Developed
    • an active learning environment for clients, staff and volunteers;
    • a range of responses within a framework of a family based intervention.


Leadership can be a difficult quality to describe and can reside at different levels in an organisation. Good leadership in alcohol hidden harm focuses on the needs of clients and the aims of the organsiation, modelling behaviour expected in others and giving direction at crucial stages in the development and maintenance of a service. Good leaders communicate their passion for their work. Staff and volunteers should be able to identify the leaders in an organisation in order to get help to initiate change. Leaders may have to look to other leaders in related organisations to help them develop their skills through action learning, rather than rely on formal training.


  • Leadership is concerned with developing a credible vision – being able to make sense of and communicate the bigger picture at a local level. (SCIE)
  • McGill, I., & Brockbank, A. (2004). The Action Learning Handbook. London: Routledge
  • Zwanenberg, Z. (2003) Leadership and management development in social services: Scottish Leadership Foundation

References from this section:

  • McGill, I., & Brockbank, A. (2004). The Action Learning Handbook. London: Rcoutledge
  • Zwanenberg, Z. (2003) Leadership and management development in social services: Scottish Leadership Foundation