Compassionate Leading


Compassionate Leading


Head of Sherborne House School, Mark Beach, writes on compassionate leadership in schools, and how to instil these qualities in our children.

‘When we are motivated by compassion and wisdom, the results of our actions benefit everyone, not just ourselves or some immediate convenience.’ Dalai Lama

Some excellent articles have been published recently (MacKinsey Insights and Forbes) on the topic of compassion and leadership. Perhaps it’s the current COVID-19 climate that is making us all the more aware that the attitudes of kindness, tolerance and compassion are needed more now than in the recent past. I am sure that we have all been affected by those little acts of kindness and compassion that we are perhaps noticing more now than we did pre-corona. However, I was struck by Jacinda Arden’s comment that she ‘refuses to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.’

Compassionate leadership is more than just being a compassionate individual and caring for a colleague. A compassionate leader and person, encourages compassion and caring in the wider organisation. A compassionate leader encourages employees to talk about their problems and to provide support for one another. Compassionate leadership is about a) being a compassionate person and b) trying to create a compassionate culture.

The compassionate leader will know that they are surrounded by very capable and intelligent team members who will offer creative solutions to problems. The compassionate leader will be receptive to these ideas and by being receptive and open, they allow their team to grow and be empowered. As General James Mattis wrote, ‘Believe so completely in subordinates; they have no choice but to believe in themselves; act from integrity and authenticity, let your very goodness put ambition out of context. Be brave, honest, humble – be a home-run of a human being.’ Compassionate leaders bring their team members together to work as a functional unit. They lay the groundwork for their team to have the best chance of success, and then take great joy in sitting back and watching team members shine individually and collectively. These leaders have no problem taking the lead when the team is in danger and no problem stepping to the side to allow their team to experience the successes they have accomplished on their own.

Arguably, the driving forces of exceptional leadership are desire, self-awareness and, most importantly, compassion. To be effective, leaders must have the necessary empathy to inspire understanding and knowledge in team members. Empathy begins with taking an understanding of life from the experience and perception of another. Psychologist Sherrie Campbell states that when empathy is present, defensiveness decreases and something positive replaces it. Empathy opens doors and removes confusion. It softens the minds and hearts of others. When people are open, this is exactly when the compassionate leader can be more creative in solving problems in ways that drive productivity and long-term success.

Leadership requires empathy – we are teaching our children to be leaders, thinkers, and to be socially responsible. To lead effectively, we must model empathy with the children in our schools. They, in turn, will practice empathy in their own moments of leadership. Hopefully, they will adopt the trait for use in future relationships as well.

I believe that by developing empathy, a person’s real happiness can lead to success. Empathy can activate our hearts and make us better and more positive contributors to society. However, to develop these empathetic skills within our pupils we have to develop them within ourselves so that we can be both role models for the younger generation and compassionate leaders. As leaders we need to demonstrate compassion on a daily basis. Roffey Park’s Compassion Workplace Model states that there are five aspects of compassionate leadership:

Being aware of the needs of others

Being non-judgemental

Being resilient and tolerant towards personal distress in others

Feeling and showing empathy at all levels

Being accountable and responsible for all the good and bad outcomes of your team

I believe that in our schools we want to develop our pupils to be kind and tolerant. We want them to develop those empathetic skills that allow them to respond with appropriate emotion to someone else’s feelings. In his excellent Think Piece – The Compassionate School Leader – David Woods asks the question,  ‘By the time children finish school, what do we hope they will have become?’ He argues that most of us would hope that they would be fluent, decent, resilient, self-driven achievers who live up to altruistic ideals and values; that they would be compassionate individuals who care for each other and for the planet. Compassionate leaders view the growth and development of the people they lead and the schools they serve as the great makers of their success.

A compassionate leader will take the time to listen to their team and come to understand them. They will ask their team questions, not just about their job, but about their lives and families. The compassionate leader is someone who is genuinely interested in people. It’s also important that we remind ourselves that the story we tell in our minds is different from the story playing in the minds of others. It’s only through listening intently to others that we can begin to understand these differences. By demonstrating empathy and compassion you will be able to empower your team and allow them to grow. Compassionate leaders know that empowering others is the key to everyone’s success. They take a step back when needed and always give credit where and when it’s due. If you’re working on compassionate leadership, delight in the accomplishments of the people that work in your team. If we take the time to understand the people around us then they will feel appreciated. Compassion is a strength because it also allows us to understand others.

However, questions remain as to whether this enthusiasm can be translated effectively to the business world, where ‘some managers fear showing too much kindness could be perceived as weakness, others think pressure is the only way to keep employees productive’. Yet research shows that if leaders seek loyal employees, they should choose kindness and compassion over toughness. Compassion is not separate from being professional. Compassion is seen as an important leadership trait. Evidence exists that employees like and trust leaders who show kindness rather than anger when resolving conflict, which in turn can boost performance, retention, and levels of trust. Leaders should work to create a compassionate culture within their organisation. This would be a collegial approach characterised by openness, curiosity, kindness and appreciation.

‘Compassionate leadership in practice means leaders listening with fascination to those they lead, arriving at a shared (rather than imposed) understanding of the challenges they face, empathising with and caring for them, and then taking action to help or support them.’ (West M and Bailey S, ‘Five Myths of Compassionate Leadership’)

‘Great leaders need to have empathy and perspective. Rather than taking charge we need to place a greater emphasis on taking care of those in our charge.’ Simon Sinek