Compassionate Leadership in Global Health

Many of us have hit a breaking point. We’re tired of connecting with colleagues through two-dimensional screens, struggling to cope with isolation from our friends and family, overwhelmed by grief and collective trauma from losing loved ones and our ‘former normal,’ and consumed by the fight for social justice around the world.

How are global health leaders supposed to lead in times like these? 

With compassion. 

At FACE, we regard compassion as “an awareness of another’s suffering, emotional resonance with the person or group who is suffering, and a desire or action to alleviate that suffering.” In short, empathy + action = compassion

Neuroscience has revealed clear differences between empathy and compassion. When we feel empathy for someone who is suffering—meaning we feel what another person is feeling—it actually registers as pain in the brain. Compassion, on the other hand, stimulates the parts of our brain associated with action, as well as the “feel good” centers in our brain. Cultivating compassion can help prevent burnout associated with emotional overwhelm—a skill critical for the practice of global health, which seeks to address and prevent suffering around the world. 

What is compassionate leadership?

On March 11, 2021, FACE, in partnership with the WHO Global Learning Laboratory for Quality Universal Health Coverage, co-hosted its quarterly Global Health Compassion Rounds on the topic of Compassionate Leadership in Global Health

In this session, Evan Harrel, Chief Operating Officer, Center for Compassionate Leadership, explained two main parts of compassionate leadership: 1) treating those you lead with compassion in all circumstances, and 2) creating a culture of compassion that supports the flourishing of everyone. 

Organizational psychologist, author, and Stanford research scientist, Monica Worline, described compassion as a social process. “We cannot actually have innovation or quality of care in our organizations without having compassion—they have to be woven together,” said Worline. “Compassionate leadership is not something separate from the rest of the work that leaders do.”

Where do we start?

Although the value of compassionate leadership is increasingly recognized, many leaders don’t know where to start. A 2018 survey of 1,000 business leaders cited in the Harvard Business Review found that 91% considered compassion very important for leadership, while 80% said they would like to enhance their compassion but don’t know how.

A survey of global health leaders by the Center for Compassionate Leadership found that the most common personal challenges to leading more compassionately include: 1) a lack of personal boundaries; 2) perfectionism; 3) a lack of self-compassion; and 4) not knowing how to lead compassionately. 

The most common organizational challenges to compassionate leadership include: 1) overwork and excessive demands on one’s time; 2) the legacy of colonialism and systemic racism; 3) being distanced from those we serve; and 4) a lack of emotional support in the workplace.

Fortunately, these are all issues that can be addressed. They involve learning skills in three interrelated areas, viewed as concentric circles.

Leading with compassion starts from the inside out. Many of us in global health tend to de-prioritize nurturing ourselves, but this is where compassionate leadership must begin. Laura Berland, Executive Director of the Center for Compassionate Leadership, explained: “The inner work at the center is what is necessary to be able to show up as a leader, to be able to be your own container for your own emotions, and to model and embody compassion for those in your sphere of influence.”

From Center for Compassionate Leadership

Moving outward, we can practice compassion in our personal and work relationships, as well as in community. Worline suggests infusing a tiny bit more humanity and compassion for oneself and one’s colleagues each time you interact, as well as identifying systems and processes where compassion can also be integrated.

When we’re learning to be compassionate leaders, we’re learning to reawaken our own compassion—to remove those obstacles we have put up that block compassion,” said Worline. “Learning to reawaken and to design systems and organizations can awaken compassion.”

The outer circle is about building communities of organizations that support people’s inner compassion and the outward flow of compassion everywhere. “This is really about locking arms, so that we can support each other,” said Berland. “If we want to give compassion to ourselves and bring compassion out in the world for all, it’s not a solo endeavor.”

The payoff is worth it

Compassionate leadership is hard work. It is a journey that entails patience, vulnerability, and self-inquiry. It requires a willingness to be present to discomfort and a moment-to-moment commitment to practice compassion. 

But the payoff is worth it. Compassionate organizations experience greater productivity, engagement, resilience, and creativity, yielding both individual and collective benefits. 

Leaders exist at every level in organizations, regardless of seniority. The “compassion revolution” in global health begins with each of us. “The smallest of moves matter and ripple in unexpected ways,” added Berland.

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