• Leadership, Gabriël Anthonio-style

    Dispelling the myths

    A good leader does not always have all the answers, says professor of leadership Gabriël Anthonio. The trick is to admit this and to de-mythologise leadership. ‘Then you can start making soup together.’
    in short

    Professor by special appointment Gabriël Anthonio argues for a new type of leadership, one that creates space for people to come up with new ideas together.

    He is inspired by his son Mahil, who is autistic and profoundly mentally handicapped.

    At his school, the children make soup together. During that process, countless smaller processes come together. The result is something that everyone has contributed to. ‘That is the participation society.’

    For him, that does not refer to Rutte’s furious economising. The search for a new balance also results in interesting testing grounds. ‘I like it when things don’t go smoothly.’

    He is looking for connections and communication. He did this as director of the Van Mesdag clinic, where he had his office smack dab in the middle of the patients. He also followed that path as boss of the Centre for Addiction Care for the northern Netherlands when he hung out with addicts on the street.

    ‘I tell people, ‘I’m not smarter than you. Let’s look at the possibilities together’, he says. The result is a new middle ground.

    He accepts what he cannot change, but he invests energy in the things he can change. ‘When you can do that, when you can de-mythologise leadership and stop making assumptions, then you can start making great soup together.’

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    ‘Yes’, says Gabriël Anthonio. ‘You have to make sure that everyone contributes whatever they can to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. To lead means making clear that you’re not any better or smarter than the people beneath you, but rather creating space to come up with new ideas together. A bit of leek isn’t expensive, and neither is a bouillon cube or a pot of water. But put them all together and you can make soup.’

    In talking to the professor by special appointment of sociology of leadership, organisations and sustainability, one thing becomes clear. He is no ambitious career man driving around in a BMW, nor is he a classic administrator collecting a fat paycheck without ever leaving the office. This is a man who wants to do things differently. He is someone who argues for de-mythologising the leader, who wants to make connections and is always looking for inspiration in stories, for instance his own son Mahil, who is autistic and profoundly mentally handicapped. Hence the soup.

    Soup moment

    ‘My son communicates on the level of a three-year-old child, and he is enrolled in special education’, Anthonio explains. ‘Before, the kitchen would always make soup at noon and they’d all eat it, but one day, one of the supervisors saw that it could be different.’

    The children started making the soup themselves. However, the budget of five euros remained. And that meant carefully calculating every nickel and dime – the blind children counted them by feeling the different coins. They had to monitor the supermarket flyers for what you could buy with that amount. And then they had to go to the store for groceries: five green beans, one onion, et cetera.

    ‘And then they would set up the soup line: one person cuts the leek, another measures the water. My son is the support team: he waves his hands to cheer them on. When the soup is finished, they all get to eat it together.’

    What Anthonio means is that the ‘soup moment’ was organised vertically. But now, so many things come together: calculating, learning, togetherness. ‘It’s a wealth of resources’, he says. ‘That is the participation society.’

    Testing ground

    Participation society? Is that not Rutte’s euphemism for ‘cutbacks’?

    Yes and no, Anthonio clarifies. He completely disagrees with the rapid pace at which the government is breaking down a system that took 50 years to build. It concerns him. He is worried about people on the street with serious psychiatric or addiction issues, young people who slip through the cracks, and old people who are dying in their homes.

    On the other hand, he wants to be realistic. The costs of care are getting out of hand. And the search for a new balance also makes for great testing grounds. ‘It makes me think: how are we going to fix this? I like it when things don’t go smoothly.’

    And things almost never go smoothly at the organisations that Anthonio heads up. It started when he went to work at a rehabilitation facility and was faced with a drastic reorganisation. And it certainly became clear when he became director at the Groningen Van Mesdag clinic at a time where the newspapers were full of stories of escapes, relationships between staff and patients and organisational chaos. One of his predecessors, a director named Van Marle, had even been taken hostage by a patient.

    Safety is found in connections, not in doors and gates.

    Anthonio decided to do it differently. He decided to have his office in an open cell, smack dab in the middle of all the patients. He promised not to take them hostage if they promised not to take him hostage, sent home the security guards who usually watch the board members and had the grey walls painted by students of Minerva and the detainees themselves. A risk?

    He does not think so. ‘Safety is found in connections, not in doors and gates. If you’re in a situation where you don’t see the patients but you do make decisions about their leave or compulsory medication, they don’t feel a connection and you become an object to them.’

    Beautiful and authentic

    He spoke with patients regularly. They trusted him, which resulted in them telling him about the drugs hidden in a tennis ball thrown over the wall of the facility. ‘I never would have known that if I had been sitting in an office on the other side of the clinic.’

    As director of the Centre for Addiction Care of the northern Netherlands (VNN) – his current job – he has stayed this course. He wants to talk and to listen. And so last year, he spent a week with heavily addicted people who also suffered from psychiatric problems and asked them: what is being done right in health care and what is being done wrong? ‘It was such an honour to be a part of their lives! Quite intense as well, obviously. They are often unkempt and unclean, and they’re living on the fringes of society. But they’re also powerful, beautiful, and authentic.’

    You could say he idealises these people. After all, we are talking about vulnerable people living in society’s gutter. Right? But Anthonio disagrees. ‘They’re survivors, really powerful people, actually’, he emphasises. ‘Take someone who’s been addicted to heroin for 20 years, but who has never committed a crime. He spent all that time biking to auto repair shops and collecting 60 euros worth of scrap metal every day. I think that’s impressive.’

    There are things you can’t change, which means there’s no need to worry about them.

    And when you tell them how strong they are to live their lives according to that moral compass, they feel proud as well. ‘Isn’t it weird how we always want to measure the value of a life by its economic success?’

    He refers to his son, who cannot read, write, or talk, once more. ‘I want him to thrive the way he is. And I’m raising him by following him, taking the steps with him, one at a time.’

    Anthonio wants to do the same as leader of a large organisation. He wants to open up a dialogue and find a way to get somewhere together, to find the best middle ground. And – most importantly – he will not be rushed. Administrative ‘impatience’ is a thorn in his side. ‘There is great power in doing nothing. Is it really that terrible if the annual accounts show the positive numbers on 31 March instead of 31 December?’

    Ideal middle ground

    When he started work at the VNN, it was facing reorganisation as well. He had to cut back 3 million euros and fire 150 people. And he decided not to. Instead, he took two months to talk to people and take stock. ‘I said: I’m not smarter than you. Let’s look at the possibilities together.’

    Eventually, he managed to carry out the reforms without any forced dismissals.

    Things can be different, he reiterates. As long as you keep finding that dialogue and manage to extricate yourself from administrative reflexes. He loathes our need for rules that is keeping society in its clutches. The Hague might say they want fewer rules, but in practice, the rules just keep multiplying. A few years ago, Anthonio only had a few contracts with the government: now, he has 80. Countless reports need to be written, quality standards checked, and performance deals observed. ‘That does not always go smoothly’, he admits. ‘That’s when I start looking for an ideal middle ground.’

    He says he is inspired by the stoic philosopher Epictetus. ‘He said that life is very simple. There are things you can’t change, which means there’s no need to worry about them. It’s much better to spend energy on things you can change.’

    Those 80 healthcare contracts? He cannot do anything about them. So he accepts them. But when he had to make his people write large reports as quality control for subsidising, he ‘politely resisted’ and refused. ‘And that was pretty tense, because those reports were necessary for quite a large subsidy.’

    Excessive bureaucracy gives people a false sense of security, but life just does what it pleases

    Finally, the controlling body capitulated and came by to actually talk to the people involved about quality. ‘People liked that so much that there will be more regular dialogue sessions. Doing nothing is so powerful.’

    He has reached a new middle ground by doing nothing, he says. ‘Excessive bureaucracy gives people a false sense of security, but life just does what it pleases.’ In the meantime, doctors, teachers and youth counsellors become more and more estranged from their work. ‘There are no bosses anymore. The system has taken over.’

    That is something Anthonio wants to change. His leadership philosophy is about trust, dialogue, connections and growing closer. He is convinced that need that, if for no other reason than that old school managers mess up so often. ‘When I say: ‘I don’t know’, I am making myself vulnerable. But it also takes courage to be vulnerable’, he emphasises. ‘When you can do that, when you can de-mythologise leadership and stop making assumptions, then you can start making great soup together.’

    But – lest we forget – someone has to be ultimately responsible. Someone has to decide when the soup is done. And that person is Anthonio.

    Gabriël Anthonio

    Gabriël Anthonio started as a counsellor, a group leader, and a therapist in crisis care in Utrecht and the Jellinek clinic in Amsterdam.

    From 1994 onwards, he was director at the Foundation for Delinquency and Society, director of Treatment Matters at the state institution De Hartelborgt, director at the Van Mesdag clinic, president of the Board of Directors at Youth Aid Friesland, and chief executive officer at the Centre for Addiction Care for the northern Netherlands.

    He earned his PhD in 2006 with his thesis titled The humanisation of a judicial organisation, about his time at the Van Mesdag clinic. Since 2007, he has been the lecturer of leadership at Stenden University of Applied Sciences. He was named professor by special appointment at the RUG in 2005.