Can you afford (not) to be a compassionate leader.

Updated: Apr 28

Written by Taylor Clarke Senior Associate Consultant Mark Adderley


Let’s admit it, we have all watched The Apprentice, and thought about the leadership style on display: cut throat,; competitive; determined and harsh, and wondered “does it work in reality”, or “can I be like that”?

And we have seen some harsh and aggressive behaviours from those affected by COVID-19.

Or maybe some of us think, “I can’t be like that I’m just not able to have the hard conversations, I am just too compassionate and soft, and will never be successful”.

And maybe we have seen some random acts of kindness, or participated in the clap for NHS/carers, recognising compassion as a key part of society’s infrastructure at last.

While we might understand Compassion as empathy, caring or feeling, I understand Compassionate Leadership as having four components: noticing, feeling, responding and acting. (Atkins and Parker 2012). This is more than empathy alone and includes a response and action.

Michael West gave a similar definition for the NHS (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrPmMwg9X8s&feature=youtu.be – Compassionate and inclusive leadership, Michael West.

What place compassion then in management of our organisations and people?

At an individual level, there are massive pressures on people. Organisations are responding to the epidemic in mental illness, with organisational initiatives such as wellbeing, inclusion and engagement which is welcomed. This is ‘just’ applying individual compassion at a human level to an organisational one! However, at an organisational level, there is increasing “demand for organisations and their leaders to create, produce, and deliver goods and services that enhance the wellbeing for all the stakeholders” (Tsui 2010).This is now an essential not desirable criteria for many, particularly millennials. Many millennials, not just because of today’s situation, look for a values-driven company to join and commit to - witness the growth of information sharing platforms like Glass Ceiling, The Student Room etc. At a customer level, listening to and caring for our customers is seen as a key characteristic of well managed companies.

At an organisational level, the more diverse and inclusive organisations are, the better. We know that diversity does improve decision making and makes an organisation more robust and sustainable. At a macro level, the ‘extinction’ of our planet, recent pandemics, and global issues like health, wealth and the planet itself requires a compassionate not a more destructive response, and the recent coverage of that, alongside the passion that these issues engender makes this a critical agenda item for organisations, and particularly in the NHS where compassion is a core value.

For those who went to business school 20 years ago, we need to forget the aggressive sales-oriented leadership case studies which brought (or bought) success, and look for a different style of leadership, one that has care and compassion all around us at its core, compassion for ourselves, our leadership, our people, our organisation and our stakeholders – 360-degree compassion.

If we look around and within us, there are several directions that we can exhibit compassion through, noticing, feeling, responding and acting:

Make your organisational impact as positive as it can be. Stakeholders are interested in our carbon footprint, our commitment to equality and inclusion, and our social impact. Author Daniel Pink talks about employee engagement being driven by “autonomy, mastery and purpose”. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KgGhSOAtAyQ - The surprising Truth about Motivation, Daniel Pink).

Having a clear and compassionate purpose which shows commitment to the world, the environment, our customers and employees is attractive and will deliver long term ROI. While much of this is legislated, with equalities legislation, gender pay gap publishing, anti-slavery statements and environmental impact statements, there is a real opportunity to be positively different and go beyond the legislative minima acting on the basis of what we notice.

Be customer driven. The very first piece of work I did in Scotland was for a bank. I looked at the impact of customer service on profitability and found that after “size of branch” and “queuing”, that “courtesy” and “ability to solve problems” were the biggest drivers of revenue. Not the assertive sales force or great literature, but the banks admitting they got things wrong and fixing them politely and effectively. The Private Financing of Healthcare has been shown at times to be inadequate, and at times lacking a focus on customer needs with instead a focus on profit, yet this continues, and PFI struggles to build a positive reputation. I wonder if the focus was more on customers, if shareholder needs would follow anyway, with a more sustainable model for healthcare. Customers might not always be right, but they deserve our attention and compassion.

Coach your employees. As we are learning about new ways to manage and motivate our teams, have some time to reflect, review plans, review targets and put in place development plans for our people – we need to listen to our people and act on it. We know that a more engaged workforce is more productive. If we understand what they need and not just what our organisations need, then our investment in people through individual development and team development will pay dividends. I rarely hear an executive after coaching saying anything other than “what a great use of my time”, or being positive about a team development day. We want our employees to be committed to our organisations and stay with us. This means that our relationships with them need to become insightful, and compassionate so that we can journey with them through both the ups and downs of life, and that means investment of our time.

Have the difficult and clear conversation. Making sure that shortfalls are identified, and development gaps closed. This is particularly difficult when managing from a distance. Coaching styles help managers to get that difficult message over and help the employee to develop their own actions that they ‘own’ and will deliver. Being compassionate means listening, understanding, but not making excuses for poor performance. Sometimes the difficult message enables a new career or a supported exit that frees the employee rather than traps them. While difficult, this can be truly caring and compassionate for the individual and the organisation, and many find release from their release.

Be kind to yourself. Life is hard and keeping a sense of perspective critical in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. Keeping a good life balance (work, pleasure, hobbies, family, sleep) is more important now that ever. We have longer working lives, more strains on family and caring responsibilities, and need to care for ourselves. Not to exclude others, but so we can be ourselves, maintain integrity of our personalities (are you a particular personality INTJ? Do you need space to think and plan? Are you a good crisis manager type?). Understand yourself, and you understand how you can be as good as you can be at home and at work and keep a sound perspective.

Fundamentally, it’s about knowing who you are, what you work for, who you work with, who works for you and who you work for. It takes reflection to become a 360-degree compassionate leader.

Is 360-degree compassion a challenge for you? Do you need to develop new coaching skills or develop your emotional intelligence? Are you already a coach? Does your organisation need more coaches?

If you would like to explore this issue with a member of the Taylor Clarke team please contact me at MarkA@TaylorClarke.com.

What next?

Taylor Clarke are hosting a free Let’s Talk session about how reflective practice helps you take care of your leadership on Thursday 30th April (1600-1700). If you’d like to join meet other like-minded leaders then you can book a place here or for further information do get in touch at https://www.taylorclarke.co.uk/contact-us



Mark Adderley has over 30 years’ experience as a leader. He has been a Chief Executive, HR Director, Transformation Director and now Non-Executive Director across sectors and geographies. He is now a Coach and Consultant to organisations and leaders going through change.

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