Compassionate Leadership

Updated: Jun 23, 2020

If we agree that compassionate leadership is a ‘good’ thing, and I suspect we do, who is responsible for making it happen?

It’s easy to complain about the organisations we work in. We all do it. It might even be productive sometimes, but there is something interesting about complaining about our workplaces. Usually, when we are complaining, we are delegating responsibility for changing things for the better to others. Usually, in our view, we delegate responsibility for changing things to others who are managing us and who, as far as we can see, seem incapable of grasping obvious solutions. Complaining is easy but I wonder if it often has to do with our own view of what it means to be a manager and a leader.

Now, the science of management is an interesting field. I’ve spent some time over a long career in the NHS thinking about management, being managed, managing large teams, and teaching management theory. I’ve also spent some time thinking about leadership. Here is some of what I’ve learned.

There are over a thousand definitions of management. These definitions depend on theoretical perspectives with economists considering management as a resource, bureaucrats viewing management as a system of authority to achieve goals, and sociologists thinking of managers as the social elite. There is some agreement that management can be defined across functions: planning, organizing, actuating and controlling. However, whatever the theoretical slant, traditional conceptualisations of management tend to view the ‘functions’ of management and the ‘role’ of management in much the same way. A designated individual (or, perhaps, groups of individuals) in an organisation undertake certain functions to control and deliver desired goals for that organisation with a workforce. In this traditional position, the role of ‘manager’ and ‘leader’ are seen as the same thing: managers lead, usually exclusively.

Contemporary theorists have begun to separate the concepts of management and leadership. Unlike management, which is a designated function, contemporary thinkers suggest that leadership has nothing to do with seniority or hierarchal position in an organisation. Leadership and a pay grade are not necessarily the same thing. Further, the capacity to offer leadership to an organisation is not dependent on a formal title. Increasingly, theorists in management science are beginning to suggest that leadership is a process associated with social influence, which can maximize the efforts of other people toward a shared goal. Understanding leadership in this way has to do with recognising that every member of the team has skills and experiences that are not necessarily common to all and that these individual skills and experiences can be of major benefit to the team.

From this definition, leadership has to do with our influence on others and not authority or power, and although this view of leadership indicates that leaders need others to lead, those ‘others’ do not necessarily need to be direct reports. There are many roads to effective leadership and this definition argues that maximizing the efforts of others toward a goal is crucial. From this perspective, any member of a team can be a leader, and over time, in effective teams, leadership can be shared among team members, depending on particular interests and strengths. Pushed to a logical conclusion, this kind of shared leadership responsibility leads to the development of self-managed teams. Managers need to co-ordinate these leadership skills but they do not hold a monopoly on leadership.

So, what does this mean? It means that each of us has a responsibility in a team to work effectively toward whatever the team goal is. Importantly, though, each of us has a potential leadership function. Any one of us, can, depending on circumstances, offer leadership to the team. If we look at compassion as a desired value, all of us have a potential leadership role to play in ensuring that value is enacted in our team. How do I treat clients? How do I treat colleagues? Am I compassionate in my behaviours and am I leading others toward maximizing their own compassionate selves? Can I lead by example? We have all worked with someone who was inspiring, not necessarily in what they had to say, but in what they did. Any one of us can be that person, that leader.

If we agree that compassionate leadership is a ‘good’ thing, who is responsible for making it happen? All of us, I guess.

Rev Dr Michael Killoran Ross

Chaplain - SAS

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