The case for compassionate leadership

Compassion is a foundation of providing excellent healthcare, but we also know that the care our staff deliver depends largely on the care they are shown, themselves.

It is easy to understand why, in an action-oriented and problem-solving setting like the NHS, leaders might not see compassion as a central tool. However, is we see compassion a drive to help other people, beyond just sympathising, it can be incredibly powerful.  For example we know that:

  • Being treated compassionately contributes to staff wellbeing, increases creativity, and boosts productivity
  • Being treated compassionately leads us to treat other people compassionately
  • Acting compassionately boosts our own energy levels, and so plays a key role in resilience – we like to help other people and we’re energised by doing so.

Sarah Massie from the King’s Fund recently wrote about compassionate leadership in health and social care, and we have been reflecting that compassionate leadership is also a tool for quality improvement.

When talking to the King’s Fund in November 2015, Michael West described what compassion means and how we need to have leadership which embodies certain principles and specifically…

“Leaders who pay attention to staff, who listen with fascination to what staff have to say, who appraise with them the causes of the challenges and the difficulties that face them, who have an empathic response to the situation of staff and the fact that they’re currently so beleaguered and so under pressure and who take intelligent action to help them to make a difference.”

This is also a really good description of the kind of leadership we need for quality improvement to flourish.


Compassion is probably one of the most valuable resources we have so we need to make every contact count in the service of it. This means being disciplined in giving attentiveness, showing support, offering assistance, sharing knowledge and making introductions.

But also, by paying attention to staff and listening to what staff have to say; and by being empathic and taking action to help staff to make a difference – leaders can help to build the foundations of psychological safety that allow us to embrace innovation and small tests of change.

In this article by Adam Grant, he makes the case that “A willingness to help others achieve their goals lies at the heart of effective collaboration, innovation, quality improvement, and service excellence”.

Most of us came into healthcare have compassion in common, but in a system built around accountability and compliance, consistently demonstrating that compassion to each other often takes focused attention and determined effort.

We need to understand compassion as set of active behaviours rather than as a passive state, we need to see its value and power, and maybe we need to start by making sure we delivering it to each other too.

Let us know what you think in the comments section below.


(The King’s Fund are currently offering a programme on developing compassionate leadership and you can see the details here)

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