Talking leadership: Sarah Massie on developing compassionate leadership through mindfulness

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Sarah Massie is a senior consultant in Leadership Development at The King's Fund and director of the Developing compassionate leadership through mindfulness programme. We speak to Sarah about why compassion and mindfulness are essential practices for leaders working in complex NHS systems.

What is compassionate leadership?

A compassionate leader is someone who uses a high level of self-awareness and emotional intelligence to truly listen to what people tell them, then responds with empathy and action that makes a positive difference. Compassionate leaders are mindful and attentive to the ‘here and now’ – which enables them to tap into feelings and concerns that are left unspoken. And they are able to nurture positive emotions of compassion and empathy in others, too.

You mention mindfulness – how do you define a mindful approach?

I see mindfulness as paying attention to what is going on in your mind, in your body and in the external environment at any given moment. It’s about embracing an attitude of curiosity and kindness, which will lead you towards a greater awareness of how you and others are thinking, feeling and behaving.

How does compassionate leadership make a difference to staff and patients?

Staff who work with compassionate leaders are more likely to feel valued, to have a high level of self-worth and to feel happy in their jobs. All of this promotes positive behaviours such as kindness, confidence and engagement, which then spread through teams and have a big impact on patient experience. Research tells us that patient experience and staff experience are closely linked: one is unlikely to have a positive experience without the other. Compassion in health care leadership is inspirational and there is strong evidence that it has a significant impact on health care outcomes.

Why is there a shift towards enabling more compassionate leadership in health and social care at the moment?

The intense focus on issues of patient safety and quality of care has led to scrutiny of leadership styles and how leaders can create an organisational culture that prioritises safe, high quality care. The Francis, Keogh and Berwick reports along with the NHS five year forward view and NHS England’s Building and strengthening leadership paper all identify compassionate leadership as the cornerstone to enabling these positive changes. The sector as a whole has come to recognise that effective leaders need to combine focus, will and clarity with compassion.

What are the links between practising mindfulness and leading more compassionately?

A compassionate approach has to develop from within the leader – it isn’t something you can learn from a leadership manual. Mindfulness is at the heart of compassionate leadership because it’s a way of becoming more aware and connected with yourself in any given moment. Being mindful helps you to notice your thoughts, feelings and experiences, so that you can respond in a more considered and non-judgmental way. This is absolutely critical when working within complex NHS systems, particularly if you’re dealing with conflict or operating in an uncertain environment.

Compassion can often be cast aside when you’re working under time pressures or if you’re not able to see how your behaviour affects other individuals and the wider working environment. Mindfulness is a way of overcoming these barriers – it helps you to anchor you in the present moment, respond sensitively to the needs of those around you and nurture a culture where compassion is at the centre of care.

Find out more about our Developing compassionate leadership through mindfulness programme