Compassionate Leadership: Sustaining Wisdom, Humanity and Presence in Health and Social Care
Michael A. West
Swirling Leaf Press; 2021
Reviewed by Johny Van Aerde, MD, PhD
Compassionate Leadership by well-known British researcher and author, Michael West, is a must-read. Professor West has written extensively on health care leadership. This latest work provides a great companion to Dickson and Tholl’s classic textbook Bringing Leadership to Life in Health,1 which aptly outlines the well-known LEADS framework of health care leadership. West’s book rounds out Dickson and Tholl’s work by adding “distributed leadership” and “caring” as realms within health care leadership. Along with other recent works, such as Without Compassion, There Is No Healthcare by Dr. Brian Hodges et al.2 and Compassionomics by Trzeciak and Mazzarelli,3 this new book gives us knowledge and tools for developing compassionate leadership, including practising self-compassion and building compassionate teams and organizations.
The first chapters of the book align with the domains Lead self, Engage others, and Achieve results domains of the LEADS framework1; the last chapters align more with Achieve results, Develop coalitions, and Systems transformation. In the first chapter, West defines the four steps of compassion as a universal human value: being aware of suffering, attending; having cognition of the cause, understanding; mirroring the other’s feelings without being overwhelmed, empathizing; and taking action to relieve the suffering, helping. Looking at it differently, we start with the brain (understanding), then add the heart (empathizing) and finally the hands (helping). Top
Chapters 6 to 9 describe compassionate leadership with collective, inclusive, and systemic lenses. By paying attention to people’s autonomy, belonging, and contribution, their needs at work are respected and that, in turn, ensures high levels of trust, motivation, and well-being. This increases alignment with and commitment to the direction of the organization or teams. Chapter 6, one of the greatest chapters of this book, covers many fundamentals of team leadership, while the next chapter deals with equity, diversity, and inclusivity. Without genuine curiosity and inquiry about differences and challenges for those we lead and serve, it can be difficult to find the motivation to treat people fairly and differently according to their specific needs. West provides evidence of how the four elements of compassionate leadership can help us effectively deal with the issues of equity and fairness. Chapter 9 extends the scope of compassionate leadership across the boundaries of one’s own team or organization by building new relationships with other teams or organizations in the larger community of health and social care.
Most chapters include examples of how the book’s principles have been applied during the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the crisis in the health care workforce and leadership, West provides evidence of the importance of compassion even in the context of resource shortage. There is a good summary of “compassionomics,” with evidence of improved outcomes for patients, providers, and organizations when compassionate leadership is embedded in health care culture. Delving deeper into culture and psychological safety, West goes on to provide excellent, practical tools on how to safely remove barriers and introduce enablers to incorporate compassionate care in the culture at all levels of organizations. Top
The last section of the book is on self-compassion and might be one of the best pieces ever written on the topic. In the LEADS framework, leadership starts with Lead self; thus, West’s book might have benefited from moving the final chapter to an earlier section. Nonetheless, it is an important addition to the literature in this area. To share just a few gems, “Our relationship with ourselves is the basis for our relationships with others. How we relate to ourselves determines how we relate to others.” Also, “When we help ourselves and have a warm, accepting sense of ourselves, we are better able to have a warm and accepting appreciation for all those we lead, work with and encounter, thereby enabling us to show them compassion more easily. This is the most important message of this book to all of those who work in health and social care.”
1.Dickson G, Tholl B. Bringing leadership to life in health: LEADS in a caring environment. 2nd ed. Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature; 2020.
2.Hodges B, Paech G, Bennett J. Without compassion there is no healthcare: leading with care in a technological age. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press; 2020.
3.Trzeciak S, Mazzarelli A. Compassionomics: the revolutionary scientific evidence that caring makes a difference. Pensacola, Fla.: Studer Group; 2019.
Note: All three of these books have also been reviewed in CJPL: see issues 7(2):91-2, 7(3):136-7, and 6(2):74-5, respectively.
Johny Van Aerde, MD, PhD, FRCPC, is the founding editor of the Canadian Journal of Physician Leadership and executive medical director of the Canadian Society of Physician Leaders.