What does it mean to be a leader in dementia care?

For me, as an Allied Health Professional (AHP), leadership means striving to make a difference in the lives of others. It means believing in yourself and those you work with, loving what you do and inspiring others with energy and enthusiasm.

Until “LETS TALK ABOUT DEMENTIA”, you have probably not heard too much about AHPs. Our endeavours and accomplishments don’t feature regularly on the national news. Yet AHPs are making a difference in the care and treatment of people with dementia every day, not just in the National Health Service but in local authorities, the voluntary sector, educational systems and governmental departments, volunteer groups, huge cities and rural communities.

When most people think of leaders, they recall great historical figures such as Florence Nightingale or Sir Winston Churchill or they think of “big names” in the news, such as Nelson Mandela, who still commands a spotlight even after his passing in 2013.

Yet there are leaders working in every organisation, at every level, large and small. Leadership is all around us every day in all facets of our lives – our families, schools, universities, communities, churches and social clubs as well as in the world of health and social care.

I am working with allied health professionals who are dementia champions, who are looking to see how we work with the link workers for post diagnostic support, who are integral to Alzheimer Scotland AHP dementia expert group, have become a “dementia friend” and are leading on small test of change within their own sphere of influence.

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The qualities that make AHPs good leaders can be effective whether one is leading a strategic multidisciplinary group, a uniprofessional team, an integrated clinical team, a group of undergraduate students or a clinical group intervention.

Definition of Leadership

Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes and outcomes that reflect their shared purposes (Daft, 2008)

The Hallmarks of Great Leadership

Rudy Giuliani (2002), the former mayor of New York, reflected on what it takes to make a great leader. Some of his principles include:

  • develop and communicate strong beliefs
  • accept responsibility
  • surround yourself with great people
  • study, read and learn independently

Giuliani makes the key point that leadership does not just happen. It can be learned and developed through practice as well as by studying the leadership ideas and behaviour of great leaders.

The best leaders, at all levels in any organisation, are those who are genuinely interested in other people and find ways to bring out the best in them. In addition, today’s leaders value change over stability, empowerment over control, collaboration over competition, diversity over uniformity and integrity over self-interest.

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On reflection

Coaching has emerged partly to help people through the transition to a new paradigm of leadership. Coaches encourage leaders to confront their own flaws and hang ups that inhibit effective leadership, then help them develop stronger emotional and interpersonal skills.

This brings up an interesting question: how do AHPs become effective leaders? My experience is that leadership depends on self-discovery. So I ask: are you prepared to look inward, to confront your own flaws, and learn?


Daft RL 2008         The Leadership Experience

Giuliani RW 2002 Leadership Time Warner Paperbacks


Shelagh Creegan – Associate AHP Director for Mental Health and Learning Disabilities


As an occupational therapist working in the National Health Service in Scotland, Shelagh has 31 years clinical experience working with adults with severe and enduring mental health conditions.  For the past 10 years, she has been professional lead OT in the Dundee General Adult Psychiatry Service.  Shelagh also has 4 years experience in an overarching strategic AHP leadership role in NHS Tayside’s Mental Health Service.



10 thoughts on “What does it mean to be a leader in dementia care?

  1. Thanks Shelagh, that was a very interesting article. I agree that becoming an effective leader comes from the self discovery pathway. The self discovery allows us as therapists to realise our own potential. If we cannot realise our own potential as AHPs, then we may be limiting to realise our client and communities potential for transformation !

    • Pasna thank you for your feedback. The best thing about leadership is that it is a PEOPLE activity … it is not something done “to” people. I agree with you that AHPs, clients and communities need to take personal responsibility to achieve the desired future.

  2. Great article! I even liked the Rudy quotes although I would put them somewhat differently: instead of developing and communicating strong beliefs I would say good leaders are consistent and differentiated, i.e. they know and say what they want. Rather than “accept responsibility” I would say “model being accountable,” that is integrity begins at the top. For “surround yourself with great people,” I would prefer to say “find the greatness in the people around you and name it with them and others.” I love the idea of “studying and learning independently.” By that I mean “keep learning,” don’t assume everything you needed was provided in your formal education or training. Keep growing and follow diverse interests the value of which for your work may not be immediately apparent.
    I also appreciated the list of preferences in the final paragraph of that section. I believe a good leader will recognize the change in any organization that can move it forward and out of the typical institutional ruts especially common to dementia care. Related to empowerment, I often say that I seek to locate initiative and responsibility at the lowest possible level in the organization.
    Coaching is a fascinating advancement that brings together management, consulting and counseling and a helpful way. I might say the quality of any intervention is only as good as the inner life of the consultant. Particularly in the case of dementia care, we too often find ourselves avoiding relationship with those entrusted to our care for the sake of efficiency and lose, in the process, true quality of the program.
    Thanks again for giving me the opportunity to sound off.

  3. I believe great leadership is allowing your team to lift you up so you see the route and vision ahead. They trust you implicit to plot the route.

    • An interesting concept you raise Steve … the way in which leaders build relationships with team members, set direction and create change. Thank you for sharing your thinking on the topic of leadership.

  4. Just a thought, leadership is fine but you have to be a bit careful because it is a bit too close to directing and telling people what to do, which is not exactly in line with person centred care?

    • Thank you for sharing your thinking Wynne. The expression “management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right thing” springs to mind. In essence, what does it mean to be a leader? I agree with you that in person centred care every person with dementia and every carer is important. Each person brings a certain perspective to the table. So, leadership is not about me, you or any one person. It’s about the journey of care for the person with dementia and the carer and the success of our working together …

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