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A Commentary on the Compassionate Leadership Book

Updated: Nov 8, 2021

Compassionate Leadership is a new book by Michael A. West that was published in July 2021. The book is so timely and relevant that the dedication is specifically offered to health and social care staff working during the COVID pandemic.

Author Michael West is no stranger to staff experience and quality as a Fellow with England’s The King’s Fund, an organization that shapes policy to improve health and care. (I was recently on a Gathering of Kindness panel that was moderated skillfully and gently by Michael West – who is himself a demonstrated compassionate leader).

“More courage is required to lead compassionately than to lead

using command and control.”

West beautifully describes compassion as a manifestation of love, the way we can experience a feeling of safety and belonging. Importantly, compassion is about noticing another’s suffering and paying attention to it.

And aren’t we all suffering one way or another in this pandemic? Compassion means not disappearing into denial about this suffering.

While the book focuses on creating cultures of compassion in health and social care workplaces, as I read West's words I could not help but wonder if compassion is the key to making this increasingly harsh world a gentler place for us all.

The book thoroughly defines compassion and provides vignettes that demonstrate what compassion looks like in workplaces. West describes initiatives the began during the pandemic by leaders who knew that their staff would need an infusion of compassion: by increasing communication, providing psychological support (like welfare calls to see how people were doing), offering comforts like hot food, free parking and shower facilities for staff.

It struck me when reading Compassionate Leadership that the most important way a workplace culture leans towards compassion is by the direct actions of their leaders. West describes a CEO who regularly visits the non-clinical areas to see how staff are doing and who made an extra effort to visit the mortuary staff, knowing they had been under pressure during the pandemic. In my own upcoming book, Ducks in a Row: Health Care Reimagined, I tell the story of a nurse manager who makes daily patient rounds to each patient room every morning, simply to check to see how patients and families were doing. Words on a strategy document are hollow unless they are followed up by action.

Compassionate Leadership is not naïve to the hard realities in complex workplaces. West outlines the pressures on health and social care sectors even before the pandemic, like being short-staffed and experiencing pressure and stress. Of course, the pandemic has terribly compounded these problems and added even more, like fear of contracting COVID, excess workloads and moral distress.

West offers practical suggestions to have hard conversations to deal with challenging behaviour A key element is listening. The book has helpful exercises and discussion questions at the end of each chapter to encourage reflection and many references for further reading. In this way, Compassionate Leadership could be used as guide for leadership or staff meetings, perhaps reading one chapter at a time and tackling the discussion questions together as a group.

“Enlightened healthcare practice is based on believing

that every patient deserves compassion.”

Patients need demonstrations of compassion too – West describes hospitals during the pandemic that offered iPads, free television service and created safe spaces for conversations with patients about their patient experiences.

I was relieved to read a chapter proving that compassion leads to both better health outcomes and improved patient experience, as I’ve always believed that the soft stuff like compassion leads to positive outcomes. West cites various studies proving that compassion shown by health professionals to patients leads to a lessening of back pain, decreased need for sedation, lower depression in cancer patients and less complications for patients who have diabetes.

If there was pill that offered up all these improved outcomes it would be flying off the shelves. Why is health care so reluctant to dole out compassion? While many health care professionals would say they don’t have time (I’ve been told this countless times by clinicians when I give talks about kindness), West offers evidence that showing compassion does not take up more time (or if it does, it is a tiny amount of time, like 40 seconds) BUT it leads to less errors, better patient safety, less complaints, etc, etc, etc. Since health care is obsessed with efficiency, it is important to note that the net effect of compassion is more time saved, not less.

And the whole compassion leads to burnout myth? Well, it is just that: a myth. Again, West cites study after study that proves the opposite: that compassion is the antidote to burnout.

Compassionate Leadership talks about teamwork, equity, psychological safety, radical innovation and recruiting for compassion. West is speaking my language. He saved the most crucial chapter for last: the one about self-compassion.

Self-compassion is about seeing negative thoughts and acknowledging them instead of ignoring them. It is about allowing ourselves the grace to be imperfect, and recognizing suffering – of ourselves and others – is part of the human experience. This chapter carefully suggests that we are not compassionate towards ourselves when we judge and criticize our fine selves (and health professionals, in particular, can be very hard on themselves). As West points out, if health care professionals care for themselves, that gives them the motivation to act to help others. Without self-compassion, one can be anxious or defensive towards others. Self-compassion can help people be more honest with themselves and others, and this can lead to humility.

West ends his book with a reminder that we are all worthy of love and compassion – and that starts with ourselves.

Compassionate Leadership is an important book for everybody, not just those who work in health care. We all influence others in some way, whether it is our children, family, friends or colleagues. If you dismiss compassion as woo-woo, then this book is chock-full of evidence-based research. West uses hard data to prove that this soft stuff is crucial, especially in health settings and particularly now during the pandemic.

If you are a patient and caregiver like me and pine for more compassion in health care, then Compassionate Leadership is both a validating and comforting read. I’m grateful to Michael A. West for writing this well-referenced book, to encourage leaders to be courageous and allow themselves to be compassionate. Goodness knows, we all need a more tender world right about now.

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