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Lives Not Services: A Profile of Bob Rhodes

Professor Andrew McDonnell reflects on his work with friend and colleague Bob Rhodes, President and Founder of LivesThroughFriends.


The question of developing individualised support systems for the most vulnerable in society has been a pertinent one for many decades in the UK. The litany of public abuse enquires have a strongly repetitive feel to them (Ely, Borocourt, Pindown, and Winterbourne View to name a few). I have been involved in the development of many individualised support schemes and it is important not to underestimate the significant bureaucracy involved.

Transforming care is not a simple, linear process: if we are to truly transform services and get people localised support, this requires ‘thinking out of the box.’ This personal profile of Bob Rhodes describes the career of a man who believes that a box needs not exist at all. In this article, I am going to unashamedly profile my own views of Bob and his life’s work. I must stress that this is a personal view and I hope it will capture the essence of the man.

My History with Bob

I first met Bob in 1988 in Birmingham. I had applied for a part-time post as a Clinical Psychologist on what was described then as a ‘community mental handicap team’ (CMHT). The other part of the job was an NHS funded clinical researcher post at Birmingham University. The post was unusual and I later found out that Bob had created it to attract a ‘different kind of person.’ In those early years, I experienced Bob Rhodes as the public sector manager whose drive and ambition was what he described in those days as ‘the community.’ As a young psychologist, it was nice to know I was encouraged to ‘have a go’ by senior management. Bob left to close Borocourt Hospital, which had been the subject of the documentary ‘The Silent Minority’ in 1981. It is amazing to think that it took nine years to fully begin the process of decommissioning this hospital. Bob achieved this in a relatively short period of time. Even after closure, Bob was dissatisfied with the lack of individualisation, and ultimately, he formed Thames and Chiltern Trust (TACT), which was a community interest company to support individuals.

LivesThroughFriends logo depicting two green hands forming a circle, globe-like, around the text Lives Through Friends
LivesThroughFriends Logo

Even when Bob retired from TACT, he still could not walk away from championing better lives for people. Ultimately, he formed an advocacy organisation called LivesThroughFriends. Even though technically retired, Bob is still the President of the LivesThroughFriends organisation, which has a national and international focus on developing ‘meaningful lives’ for people with complex needs.

Bob has always been involved in a variety of roles, ranging from social work to health and social care management. Prior to my involvement with Bob, he had already had an evolutionary journey into senior management. Bob originally trained as a teacher and youth worker. Bob even took the time to qualify in mental health nursing, which he did not particularly like, and went back to youth work and taught within the University of Warwick. Bob evolved his views and thinking in a number of roles – for example, he ran a young offenders programme in Coventry in the 1980s. He was also head hunted to set up early CAMHS services in the Midlands (previously, a young person may have had a psychiatrist, psychologists, and/or social workers, but they probably did not work together). There were a number of other jobs that led to Bob becoming very rapidly a senior manager in services. Throughout his career, he has developed a reputation as a problem solver from a managerial perspective.

Advocacy and Networking

Bob has been an advocate for human rights-based approaches in all the years that I have known him. One of his clear roles is that of an advocate and a campaigner. Evidence of his campaigning can also be found in his years of being politically active. There are a number of individuals that Bob has actively campaigned to helped to transform their lives. His style of advocacy involves self-directed approaches to community support; quite often he has been the go-between in developing systems of support that are unashamedly person-centred and rights based in their values.

Bob also has extensive commitments to networking and supporting organisations all over the world. He has been involved with PLAN Canada who have helped to develop self-governing supports with notable individuals such as Al Etmanski, who have been greatly influential. Bob has sought to make connections on a global basis to help individuals share ideas. In the UK, his work with the Citizen Network (formerly Centre for Welfare Reform) amongst others demonstrates his ability to find elements that work and attempt to draw them together for individuals.

Bob is a great lover of travelling and often gets involved in campaigning overseas, sometimes with surprising results. He helped to create TACT Hellas in Greece as a response to meeting families who needed advice and support to develop support systems for their sons and daughters. I have personally delivered training with Bob to a number of these organisations over the years. Bob’s globetrotting has brought him to places as far afield as Pakistan and Russia. In 2008, I attended a conference with Bob in Brussels, which focused on human rights-based approaches to supporting people across the European Union. Bob seemed to personally know many of the delegates.

Bob is able to change how people think about issues due to his ability to create solutions that require alternative routes. By definition, approaches such as these can often make people feel slightly uncomfortable. He is a passionate believer, as I am myself, that true change starts with ourselves, and this means questioning all of our strategies. One of his special talents is to create alternative styles of thinking that are still solution focused. I recall being introduced to a group of individuals called ‘Go MAD Thinking’ who are practitioners who get people to challenge their own thinking styles and the negative risk-taking cultures that organisations can often develop. Focusing on organisational change requires people to take on the perspectives of others. Bob is interested in individuals who help to change cultures by being ‘critical friends.’

Leadership Style

Bob has a tendency to formulate and think systemically. Placement failures that are blamed on the person not being ready for change or on staff, he sees as failures at a systems level, whereby services are not designed for individuals. Ideally it is desirable that people can form a consensus around an individual, and Bob and his colleagues attempt to do this as much as possible. When difficult decisions need to be made, Bob has an uncanny knack of knowing when to do this. Dwight D. Eisenhower, noted for being both a military and civilian leader, is attributed with the quotation, ‘Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because they want to do it.’ Encouraging people to support difficult decisions is an essential ingredient in the LivesThroughFriends approach.

Being a Critical Friend

Being a critical friend requires a strategic approach. Bob believes we need people with a breadth of life and professional experiences, and to have the ‘right people in the room’ in order to get the job done. Bob has never seen himself as the ‘full ticket,’ saying, ‘My job has been about pulling together a range of competencies and people.’ When Bob sets up a service for an individual, he insists that LTF and not the commissioners write the contract. LTF are often asked to work with people who are labelled most ‘challenging;’ the irony is that once Bob has applied his principles they end up with ‘better lives’ than those who were considered ‘easier to manage.’ As Bob says, this is because the service they receive is individualised and designed to meet their needs, whereas others have landed in standard supported living services or institutions. The quality and benefits of bespoke services has been officially recognised by local commissioning groups in many instances.

Bob often describes himself as an ‘anarchist,’ but more appropriately I would describe him as a ‘positive disruptor.’ By this I mean that he sees his role as encouraging change through discourse, demonstration, and challenging ‘the system.’

Community Involvement

Bob believes in and role models being active in local communities. When he lived in the Forest of Dean, Bob got involved with a variety of local issues. Bob became Chair of Local Issues with Forest Voluntary Action Forum (FVAF), which aims to build stronger communities by facilitating representation and by recruiting and training volunteers. He points out that when people are asked, ‘What matters most to you?’ their response is invariably along the lines of love, relationships, choice, being a member of a community, participation, and having a place to call home. Bob is an advocate for individuals whose needs are often otherwise overlooked, and strongly believes that communities not services can provide the keys to a ‘Good Life.’


In many ways, Bob could be described as a true maverick or even ‘one of a kind.’ His compassion for individuals and genuine passion for getting people ‘better lives’ rather than simply setting up services has been his trademark. The most traumatised and complex individuals can live fulfilling lives if we can all be encouraged to think out of the box. I was recently involved with Bob in helping a person to move from a hospital setting to their own front door. This person was one of the original individuals from the Winterbourne View documentary. This and other work with Bob has demonstrated to me that if commissioners of services and people supporting an individual can all agree to a process that places the person at the centre of supports, then much can be achieved. Working with Bob demonstrates a determination and resilience to make a difference.

Bob has assisted a number of individuals to achieve their potential (whatever they decide that potential to be). It is not unusual for Bob to view and talk of these individuals as friends. To this end, the name LivesThroughFriends is appropriate. The LTF organisation has recently grown to include a fantastically talented network of individuals who champion the approach.

Although I lead the Studio 3 organisation in our work in the UK and overseas, I am now also a Director of LTF as I genuinely believe that this organisation is making a real difference. The more people with intellectual disabilities, autism, and other labels we can help to leave hospital settings and live fulfilling lives in the community, the better. Finally, on a personal note, both as a friend and colleague Bob is a fantastic role model. In my own small way, my organisation and myself have championed the Low Arousal Approach to behaviour management. This philosophy has gathered a great deal of momentum, both within the UK and other countries, and has helped a lot of people.

Book cover for ''Much More to Life Than Services' by Bob Rhodes (2010), depicting 5 hands grasping one another's wrists.
'Much More to Life Than Services' by Bob Rhodes (2010)

Bob has been one of the individuals who has helped both directly and indirectly with the journey of this approach. I always tell people that Bob gave me my first job: in reality, he gave me the freedom and scope to develop my own ideas, and that in essence is one of his major gifts - he encourages people to think beyond what is possible. I think the collaboration between LTF and Studio 3 has demonstrated for me that so much can be achieved when there is a shared goal to move people from hospitals to community settings. His book ‘Much More to Lives Than Services’ really captures his approach to life and supporting individuals, and I would encourage anyone working in the care sector to read it.

Written by Professor Andrew McDonnell, Clinical Psychologist & CEO, Studio 3

Assisted by Stephanie Bews-Pugh, Assistant Psychologist, Studio 3


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