Authentic Leadership essential to meet current challenges facing Ireland and the world

Lt. Gen Seán Clancy

Authentic  Leadership –  where leaders are driven by a moral and ethical sense of purpose, are self-disciplined, care passionately about the work they are doing, lead with their hearts, communicate well and cultivate long-term relationships –  is essential to deal with current and future challenges facing Ireland and the world, Lt. Gen Seán Clancy, Chief of Staff, Irish Defence Forces, told a HMI South Regional seminar. 

A native of Mitchelstown, Co. Cork, Lt Gen Clancy has 37 years’ service in the Irish Defence Forces. He is the first Airman in the Irish State to serve as Chief of Staff, having previously served as Deputy Chief of Staff (Support) and General Officer Commanding Irish Air Corps and Director of Military Aviation. 

He has been a driver of change and a champion for innovation within the Defence Forces and played a central role in the development of the Ireland’s first Emergency Aeromedical Service established in 2012. He has been a strong advocate for Leadership and was the co-author of the Defence Forces Leadership Doctrine published in 2016. He also led the team which developed the current vision and values-based strategy for the Defence Forces post the publication of the White Paper on Defence.

The Chief of Staff said authentic leaders were willing to share things about themselves, they were communicators, willing to listen to others and cared about their people outside of work.  “Overseas members of the Defence Forces have better outcome because of their ‘Irishness,’ which means they are more involved locally.

“Leaders need to have a capacity for relationship-building, they develop leaders from their subordinate colleagues and people around them, throughout their organisation.  Respect for one another’s role in your service is essential. It is these type of relationships that tend to get things done.

“Leaders also need the ability to set goals and maintain self-discipline, which enables authentic leaders to move forward, no matter what comes their way. You need cool, calm leaders in stressful times and a fair bit of leaderships is now in high stress times.

“Authentic leaders are also willing to show compassion. Often, situations that service personnel finds themselves in requires compassion and emotional intelligence. The team must trust that leadership and leaders must see the team as more than  cogs in a wheel, but as persons and value them as persons.

“Tom Crean said we obeyed Scott but followed Shakelton. I think Shakelton’s sacrifice and loyalty to his men says a lot about service and authentic leadership.”

Lt. General Clancy said he was very proud of the men and women of Óglaigh na hÉireann.

“Many of our staff are strongly supported by people in your area which enables them to carry out their roles every day in the service of the State.

“I have experience of the work and leadership of the health service, particularly the clinical and non-clinical leaderships, shown at all levels throughout COVID. The pandemic was an unprecedented challenge. Your work and that of your colleagues has left a deep and lasting impression on the citizens of Ireland. Then you had to deal with the cyber-attack, which was a threat to national sovereignty. I have engaged with health managers many times, either through ambulance flying or throughout COVID and I have always felt a great pride and confidence in the management and leadership of the health system. Often, society only values services like yours and ours when we are called on to provide support and I see this as a good thing, because the country should be able to rely on our health and military services.

“Leadership is really necessary and important. I am in my role for a year and it has been a challenging time. Challenges are more evident now than ever before. Terms like energy sustainability, climate change, cyber-attack are unfortunately becoming part of our lexicon. The environment we all face today is affecting us all, through our work and our personal lives. It is also an environment which places additional responsibilities on leadership to lead responsible change.

“Leadership, for me, is personal, because leadership theory is a lucrative business and because everyone has their experience and views, which are often personal.  It is important that those trusted with leadership have a real sense of the type of leader they are. I know I am a participative leader, but there is no guaranteed style for success. It is difficult to define what distinguishes leadership, but I believe being authentic trumps other styles.

“In the defence force we set up a framework for what we consider effective leadership. It is basically a codification of belief, a body of teaching.”   

The Chief of Staff advised that if people took away three things from any meeting or discussion, they would not have wasted their time. “You should always keep a perspective on the strategic environment, recognise and grasp opportunities and challenges to which your position exposes you, keep a focus on the most important priority targets, uphold and reinforce your leadership and the culture of your workforce, which should be based on clear values and dignity and respect for all.  If it is not, see about changing it.

“Culture is about the values you share and the tacit assumption of those serving in your organisation. Military culture is one of loyalty, and faithfulness to Ireland and its constitution are central tenets of our organisation. However, there are aspects of culture that must be addressed and this can only be done by leaders. Leaders at our level must be accountable by demonstrating intolerance for any inappropriate behaviours, which cannot be tolerated in a just, tolerant and dignified workplace.   As leaders, we all have a responsibility to manage. We have a duty of care to ensure those entrusted to our care are protected and have a voice to which we will listen. Everyone has a right to unconditional respect. Leaders must be prepared to stand up against inappropriate behaviour, protect those who are vulnerable and put processes in place to encourage persons to report it if they have been a victim of inappropriate behaviour.  The authentic leader will always have the moral compass to guide them.

“Our strategic landscape has rarely been more challenging – Russia has breached international law in Ukraine, the conversation on neutrality and NATO has been much accelerated and in ten years there has been a tripling  of droughts, a quadrupling of storms and a tenfold  increase in flooding in some countries, affecting food security. Russian weaponisation of food supply has  added another dimension.  Food security is a significant challenge, immigration has now become feature of the war in Ukraine, with the largest mass migration in Europe since the last world war. As a small militarily neutral country, we are advocates for the protection of civilians. As peacekeepers, we will also continue to contribute to European common defence policy and to do this we will need to transform the defence forces.

“We have a Government, we have a unified Department of Defence and the defence forces and there is a common acknowledgment of the need for change. Doing nothing is not an option, so this gives me a very strong sense of purpose, a focus on communication and listening and knowing the imperative of building relationships and of the necessity of maintaining core values. 

“I believe the defence forces and health services offer very good careers. As leader, I would always seek out an opportunity to advance our people, where I see an opportunity for growth and transformation. I see the need to challenge junior leaders in the defence forces to see they are empowered to seek that transformation in terms of their role and purpose. We need to deliver on transformation. I need to bring those in the organisation along with me on the road to empowerment. 

“Our former Chief of Staff, Dermot Earley,  said, ‘Your attitude is more important than your, ability, your motives are more important than your methods, your courage is more important than your cleverness. Have your heart always in the right place.’”

Lt. Gen. Clancy said we should define working hours and then let the staff dictate the shape of the workday they needed to get the work done. “If you see burnout, you as a leader are failing that person, because they are obviously over-tasked and over-burdened. People have different degrees of resilience and you have to give people time to build up resilience. You need to create the mental and environmental space that they need. If you know people are burned out, you definitely have to do something about it. In my organisation, it is identifying it and empowering leadership through the organisation, creating safe talk briefings so that everybody can move collectively to change it.”

He concluded by thanking Gerry O’Dwyer, Group CEO South/Southwest Hospital Group and HMI Director of Education for the invitation to speak at the meeting. Dr. Gerard O’Callaghan, CEO of Cork University Hospital and HMI Hon Treasurer thanked the Chief of Staff for a wonderful address. The meeting was sponsored by GSK.