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Caring to change: how compassionate leadership can stimulate innovation in health care



This paper looks at compassion - which involves attending, understanding, empathising and helping - as a core cultural value of the NHS and how compassionate leadership results in a working environment that encourages people to find new and improved ways of doing things.

It also describes four key elements of a culture for innovative, high-quality and continually improving care and what they mean for patients, staff and the wider organisation:

  • inspiring vision and strategy

  • positive inclusion and participation

  • enthusiastic team and cross-boundary working

  • support and autonomy for staff to innovate.

The paper also presents case studies of how compassionate leadership has led to innovation. This work was supported by the Health Foundation.

Key findings

  • Compassionate leadership activities have many positive outcomes, at all levels of the health sector, from individuals and teams, to organisations and the system as a whole.

  • Staff are more likely to find new and improved ways of doing things if they feel they are listened to, valued and supported as this provides a sense of psychological safety.

  • Giving staff autonomy in their work is also important, along with developing a shared responsibility – a shared leadership is much more effective than a hierarchical one.

  • Positive attitudes to diversity, to inclusion and to creativity and innovation must be nurtured at every level of the organisation.

  • Innovation is often spurred by a challenge or a problem and compassionate leadership is a powerful facilitator at each stage of the problem-solving process.

Policy implications

Most leadership development occurs through experience and observing and so the NHS needs to go beyond developing the compassionate leadership module on standardised training courses: there need to be leaders at every level of the NHS who are role-modelling the values and behaviours of compassionate leadership.

The recently published framework for action on improvement and leadership development in NHS-funded services advocates compassionate and inclusive leadership and this paper provides strong evidence to support the need for this type of leadership in the health sector if we are to innovate so that patients continue to receive high-quality care.