Friday, February 11, 2022

A call for compassionate leadership.

By Kieran McCartan, PhD, Kasia Uzieblo, PhD, & David Prescott, LICSW

There is a crisis in leadership! This seems like a sweeping statement, but unfortunately, it’s not. In fact, it seems to be getting worse. Over the last few weeks, we have seen very poor leadership being demonstrated on the international and national stages, which has led us to worry about the lack of insight and compassion present in these people as well as in the system. Some examples include:

The repeated failures in the leadership of the Metropolitan police (the police force of Greater London), where there has been more evidence mounting of misogyny, racism, bulling, rape culture, and a lack of respect for victims and their families. This has been compounded by the fallout from the Sarah Everard murder, which was perpetrated during lockdown by a serving police officer. Further, Cressida Dick, the lead police officer, did not take action to remedy matters or even, some would say, recognise the need for change. Overnight, Cressida Dick has resigned as head of the Met Police, but she stated that this was because the mayor of London has lost confidence in her and not because she failed to do her job effectively or recognize the scale of the issues and her ability to respond to them.

-        A recent statement by Boris Johnson, the embattled UK Prime Minister, that Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition, was responsible for not prosecuting Jimmy Savile when he was director of Public Prosecutions. This was proven not to be the case; Starmer was not directly responsible. However, Starmer was mobbed and harassed outside of Parliament as a result of Johnson’s statement. This situation, in turn, has led to calls for Johnson to apologize and retract the statement, which he has done only in part. The anger raised by Johnson’s statement has led to members of his team resigning and condemnation from his own party as well as victims’ charities. Johnson’s statement has been seen a political move that has backfired.

All of these are examples of poor, tone-deaf leadership. They show that we need to have a more rounded, inclusive, and compassionate approach to the issue of sexual abuse and sexual violence, and that this change needs to come from leadership. The idea of compassionate leadership is not a new one, but it feels like a more salient and pressing one now. It:

“…begins with self-compassion so that by attending to yourself, understanding the challenges you face in your own work (and life more generally), empathising or caring for yourself, and then taking wise action to help yourself, you are able to stay close to the core values that give our lives  and work meaning – compassion, wisdom, courage, justice – we are able to have deeper, more authentic and more effective interactions with all those we work with and offer care for” (Professor Michael West)

Compassion leadership is about taking a trauma-informed approach to management across all levels of an organisation so that staff, service users, and partners see that leadership recognises the legacies and impact of trauma, especially when working with complex and nuanced groups. Compassionate leadership embodies the need to lead from a place of understanding, reflection, and adaption; one where all parts of the organisation are open, and able, to adapt their practice from the good of their staff and service users’ wellbeing. Compassionate leadership embodies the principles of trauma-informed practice and involves leaders demonstrating the skills, attitudes, and behaviours that they want from their organisations. It means that leaders need to hold a mirror up to themselves, and their organisations, so that they can be held accountable and change. The examples provided above do not embody compassionate leadership. Instead, they demonstrate that the two leaders, Cassandra Dick and Boris Johnson, are not understanding what their actions and organisations have caused. They are not reflecting upon these and changing in a caring as well as considerate way. They are demonstrating that the status quo matters more, and that current practice needs to be maintained. The public would be better off if they reflected on their behaviour, their leadership, and the challenges within the organisation that allows bad practice to continue. Further, they need to develop a rounded, insightful approach that allows change to happen. The first step for any compassionate leader is to recognise the issue, their role in it, and reflect as well as apologise. If our leaders cannot be reflective and compassionate, how can we expect the organisations that they are?

In contrast and returning for a moment to last week's blog on transgressive behaviour at the University of Brussels: For a while there was radio silence from the leadership, while in the media there was a huge storm and witch hunts for professors who had crossed boundaries. We even began to wonder if this silence was disturbing or if it was a good thing. Just today we - as employers - have received a message from our rector in which she accepts responsibility, but also makes clear what lessons were learned and what steps they will take in the future to pay more attention to the needs of victims and improve their communication to victims. It can be done; leaders are able to switch to thinking slow and take thoughtful actions in the right direction.


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