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Creating space for compassion, empathy and learning


  • Sam Allen photo

    Sam Allen

The Covid-19 pandemic has required swift, decisive action – call it ‘command and control’ – from many leaders in the health and care sector. Confidence. Strength. Agility. Power. Grip. Control. Assertiveness. All traits we associate with and may have experienced from leaders over recent months in responding to a global pandemic. Convention tells us that leaders are tough. However, put simply, this traditional idea of leadership is well past its sell-by-date and will not meet the challenges this pandemic shown us. Changing the narrative about this isn't easy given how firmly the ideal of the 'perfect' leader is embedded within societies and cultures.

Harsh inequalities in society are all the more apparent when viewed through the prism of Covid-19. The same old approaches to leadership will result in the same outcomes for marginalised, disenfranchised, vulnerable groups: oppression, anger and poor health outcomes. If the Black Lives Matter movement shows us anything, it's that fundamental change is needed at every level of our society. Leaders across health and care now need to lead through the lens of social justice.

While there is a time and a place for ‘command and control’ – and responding to a pandemic is one of those times, the past few months have also shone a light on a different approach to leadership, exemplified by New Zealand's Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. She has shown – through her eloquence, empathy and actions – how to lead with humility, honesty, vulnerability, kindness and compassion.

Why does that matter?

In health care, the link between positive staff experience and patient outcomes is very clear from the research evidence. Leadership that is empathetic, values humility, creates a genuine desire to learn from experience and feedback, and shows a willingness to accept other viewpoints, can foster a more optimistic and productive environment. These values help shape a psychologically safe and compassionate culture and a workplace where employees can be their authentic selves. A workplace where people are focused on making improvements, trust one another and are not worried about being blamed when things don’t go to plan.

If we, as leaders, are genuinely willing to listen to, really hear the experiences from a range of different perspectives and act on what we learn, then we will make better decisions. We will also be better placed to grow health and care systems where defensiveness, arrogance, an unhealthy preoccupation with power, reputation management and self-protectionism no longer act as impediments to reflection, learning and a willingness to acknowledge mistakes.

It is therefore time to start to let go of the command-and-control approaches that have dominated recent months and put in to practice all we have learnt as leaders during this time. We need to move away from cultures of blame and accept that mistakes are an inevitable part of life and therefore will occur in the delivery of care. We need to realise their potential to help improve health and care systems and we need to rethink the type of leadership that can make this happen. Leadership that sees vulnerability as a strength, that builds trust, is compassionate and seeks to locate decision making with the patient, clinicians and our communities.

Key points to consider when building a learning culture

  • Accept and acknowledge that mistakes will be made – build trust and value honesty.

  • Learn first, then take actions to improve and then share your learning with others. Do not apportion blame or cover your own back.

  • Maintain hope and optimism when communicating and be honest when you don’t know the answer.

  • Remember everyone is trying their best. Role model empathy and understanding.

Leading through Covid-19

Short resources and shared experiences to offer some help in supporting leaders working in the NHS, social care, public health, local authorities and the voluntary and independent sector.

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