What now?

Cast your mind back to Easter 2019. Can you remember how it was? What were your concerns? What were your plans? Life for most of us was ‘normal’, ticking along through the usual decisions about career, family and holidays. Then, suddenly, normality was whisked away as we all struggled with the pandemic and the imposed lockdowns. We had just managed to regain some of our lost freedoms when a new variant appeared, which was more transmissible, although causing less severe illness. It arrived in winter, when our defences are weaker, and led to widespread disruption. Overlapping with the rise of the variant was a steady rise in energy prices and an increase in inflation, leading to the prediction that 2022 was going to be a difficult year financially.

Suddenly, there is a war in Ukraine. While the population of Ukraine is subject to untold suffering, the initial consequence in the UK is a further increase in the price of energy, food and other products. In the background is the worry of the war spreading throughout Europe and the threat that weapons of mass destruction will be used. Survival through times of crisis, such as these we have been and are facing, calls for strong leadership. When viewed through the lens of history, such leadership appears to be bestowed on just a few individuals, but experience shows this to be a distorted perspective. The leadership shown at lower levels of any organisation or society is often what drives the key achievements that culminate in our overall success and emergence from any crisis.

The Ukraine war and COVID show any number of relevant examples. In the former, these range from the actions of the people caught up in the midst of the war, to individuals welcoming the refugees into the bordering states, to the various humanitarian organisations providing support and relief services, to individuals in the UK setting up collection centres, organising transport and delivering supplies to where they are needed. Do not forget the reporters who put themselves in harm’s way to provide us with the news on what is actually happening and show us the full horrors of the war.

Similarly, the pandemic provided many examples in the care of those who were hospitalised or in nursing homes and in the production and distribution of vaccines. Most of these leaders went unnoticed except in their own teams and locales and there are too many to list. Some higher profile names do stick in my memory. Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam showed high-quality leadership through the use of analogies to communicate science in a simple manner to the public. Likewise, the two contributors to BBC Breakfast on a Saturday morning, Dr Chris Smith and Professor Linda Bauld, led me though the COVID fog with their clear explanations when answering viewers’ questions.

Even when there is no national crisis, leadership is often displayed by those who do not have it in their job description. At the end of March, a colleague of 24 years retired after working for 43 years in non-destructive testing (NDT). During this time, he did not hold any line management positions, but it was clear from the testimonies given at his farewell that a lot of people recognised the benefits they had gained from his technical leadership. It is a feature of the nuclear demographic that there are many of us who have retired, or are nearing retirement, and there are a lot of younger people, but there is a dearth of people in the middle age group. It is due to the dedicated technical leadership of my colleague and his peers in other disciplines that knowledge is retained within the industry so that newer staff can pick up the mantle.

I know that in your organisation, in the Institute or in your career, you will know unsung people who make an impact through their leadership behaviours. We all have the potential to have a beneficial influence on others through leadership skills. Whether that is in a small way or on a bigger stage. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Jacobs or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX, UK. Fax: +44 (0)1604 438301; Email: ndtnews@bindt.org or email Bernard McGrath direct at bernard.mcgrath1@jacobs.com

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