Sadly, earlier this week, the world lost a man who was fundamentally focused on making it a better place…
Professor Aidan Halligan had done so much in his life it was hard to believe that he was only 57 years old. Most recently director of Well North, he had also been the first NHS director of Clinical Governance, was Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England. and the founding Chairman of Pathway healthcare for homeless people.
For me, as for many others, Aidan was a wise mentor. We met at an event that we had both been asked to speak at for HR professionals in the NHS. I was instantly struck by Aidan’s presence, wisdom and quiet determination and we chatted about shared Irish heritage and an interest in the challenges of leadership. Aidan was Director of Education at UCL and invited me to see the work being done there on Leadership. Over our meetings from that point I learned many things from him and have reflected on just a few of them below.
1. Connect with people, wholeheartedly.
My first visit with Aidan was at UCL’s leadership centre. We wandered the office with Aidan explaining the work being done there, what they were learning and introducing me to the team. In the midst of our wanderings an Irish gentleman stopped us ‘Professor Halligan?’ he said, slightly deferentially. Aidan stopped and focused on the man. ‘You treated my mother’ he said. Immediately Aidan recalled him, his mother and spent a few moments in deeply attentive conversation with the man.
Time in conversation with Aidan was a precious experience. I never saw him check his phone, a blackberry, not even his watch, even though he must have been an insanely busy man. He always paid complete attention to whoever was speaking, stopping only occasionally to take out his notebook and make a note of something in the conversation that had struck him in some way.
Aidan had an ability to be wholeheartedly in the here and now with another person which gave him an ability to connect with other human beings in the most amazing and uncommon way.
‘Its your example that counts, not your rank.’
2. Compassion is Action
It always inspired me to listen to Aidan talk about his work. I recall a lunch meeting, shortly after I had attended a workshop on Compassion Based Mindfulness with the wonderful Chris Irons. Chris has talked about a definition of compassion that only made full sense to me when I next met with Aidan.
‘ Compassion is noticing the suffering of another and being sufficiently moved by it to help them in some way,’
The last time I saw Aidan he was talking to me about Well North. It was in its early stages, but just as with our conversations about Pathways I was struck by Aidan’s quiet, understated, stubborn, determined, kick ass approach.When Aidan set his mind to doing something, it was absolutely unquestionable that something would be done.
Many of us are moved by what we see. Aidan did something about it. Compassion is action.
‘People respect courage and they respect compassion’
After the conversation on compassion I continued to develop a growing interest in how well or otherwise human beings can be enabled to retain their compassion working in organisational environments. I thought it would be fun to bring together a group of people who might have a view or perspective on that to share and discuss. Somewhat naive of me perhaps as there are wonderful organisations and institutions researching it all over the world.
In spite of that , when I contacted Aidan to say that I would like to introduce him to Chris and some others who I thought would be interesting participants in such a debate he didn’t hesitate for a moment to say that he would be happy to join it. I was to let him know the date and he would be there.
I hesitated too long before starting. And now that conversation can’t ever happen in quite the same way…
Aidan didn’t wait, he didn’t procrastinate about whether he was the right person. He began. And took others with him along the way.
‘ We know when we see a leader. They inspire us, and when we are inspired we become determined. And when we are determined we go further. That’s what leadership is about…’
4. Ask the ‘Beautiful Disturbing Question’
Aidan always took time to understand what I was up to at work, at home, in my volunteering. He was always interested in my volunteering at Crisis, my trustee role, and my work initially in the Civil Service and more latterly in the NSPCC. He always demonstrated a keen interest in what I was learning, and shared what he was learning along the way.
He had a skill for asking what the poet David Whyte calls ‘the beautiful disturbing question’ and my thinking benefited on so many occasions from his occasionally perturbing ability to do that.
At a lull in our conversation as I described the fullness of life and work he would always catch me out with the same one. Leaning in and giving me his full attention he would say in his gentle irish voice,
‘And tell me Siobhan, are you happy?
I’m certainly happy that I knew this wonderful man. To have had the chance to learn from him. To have witnessed so many wonderful qualities at play in a single human being. Thank you Aidan.