At a time when so many of the UK’s national institutions feel as though they are unravelling, the hideous crimes of Lucy Letby still cast a long shadow. It isn’t just that she betrayed the nursing profession, and cruelly abused the trust of colleagues and parents at the Countess of Chester hospital to murder seven babies in her care; it is also the wilful blindness of hospital management when confronted with early evidence of her killings. Doctors who presented their concerns were humiliated and threatened, and the deaths continued.
There has been talk of a failure of protecting whistleblowers, but the term seems misleading here. These were not people taking secrets outside of an organisation for a greater good. These doctors went through all the correct channels, and were still pilloried for it. Meanwhile the managers’ careers flourished.
This has also been presented as a uniquely NHS problem. But we can find similar examples across local authorities, police forces and schools. Leaders whose first instinct when confronted with a institutional failing is not to correct it, but to aggressively avoid reputational damage, even if that means aggravating an injustice they could have corrected.
In the story of Troy, one of the most haunting characters is Cassandra, a priestess who prophesises, but is cursed never to be believed. One can imagine a modern-day Cassandra taking a different tack, keeping her warnings to herself, and rising to the top of an organisation where she has foreseen that there will be no penalty for failure.
Perhaps a stricter regulatory regime where managers can be ‘struck off’ is the answer. One way or another, leaders have to learn not to run away from bad news. But to listen to it, before that news gets even worse.