A series of interviews with public, private, and third sector leaders for whom compassion is central to their practice. We explore compassion for one another, for teams and for oneself.
It continues a journey that Chris started when he wrote Compassionate Leadership (www.compassionate-leadership.co.uk), a book that combines life experience, psychology and neuroscience to create a point of departure for leaders that are seeking to create places of belonging at work.
It's based on the observation that people thrive when they feel seen and heard, they are loyal when they are growing and developing, they are motivated when they understand the vision of the business.
At the same time we acknowledge the diversity of people and the sophistication of the human mind. It's a sophistication that makes us a temperamental thoroughbred as opposed to a sturdy draft horse. We can be agile, creative, imaginative and empathetic but also obsessive, recalcitrant and depressive. Compassionate leadership involves embracing the messiness of the human condition and working with it.
Chris is a coach, writer, and speaker, whose blog can be found on Medium (https://medium.com/@chris-97488). You'll find him on Instagram at chriswh1tehead.
Donato Tramuto, the double bottom line
Donato Tramuto is a Compassionate Leadership Activist, Global Health Advocate, former CEO of Tivity Health, Founder of the Tramuto Porter Foundation, and author of a second book - ‘The Double Bottom Line: How Compassionate Leaders Captivate Hearts and Deliver Results.’
Donato believes that employees, consumers, and stakeholders are demanding that employers take care of their people, their communities, and the world around them. There’s a strong imperative for employers to focus on their people as well as on profit, and, Donato maintains, by focussing on their people they will actually strengthen their bottom line.
Donato lost most of his hearing when he was eight years of age. And for nearly ten years he was to all intents and purposes deaf. In consequence he was bullied at school and at home. His sister-in-law died in childbirth and his brother and nephew died in a car accident. Two close friends and their child lost their lives on 9/11. The experience of these tragedies has given Donato a degree of insight into the sufferings of others.
Donato believes compassion to be a driver of success: greater employee involvement leads to improved productivity, and better employer and manager wellbeing, and morale.
His book is underpinned by interviews with 41 global leaders, and a survey of 1,500 US employees.
Donato maintains that the idea that compassionate leadership is weak leadership is a myth. His model of compassionate leadership is based on the three ‘t’s of tenderness, trust, and tenacity. In the absence of trust, tough decisions meet with resistance. Gaining trust involves listening to understand.
Donato would propose to dispense with the word “feedback”, which he feels has negative connotations. He prefers “constructive insight” and moreover would always ask permission of the employee before providing it.
Donato says vulnerability is “a significant quality associated with compassionate leadership.” He didn’t embrace it fully until 2014, when he received a Robert F Kennedy “Ripple of Hope Award” and took the opportunity to acknowledge that he was gay and had been in a partnership for 25 years.
He launched two not-for-profit foundations in response to the loss of his friends aboard United flight 175 on 9/11. The Tramuto-Porter Foundation helps disadvantaged children pursue a college education. In 2011 Donato initiated Healthy Villages, which provides medical devices to populations that have compromised access to healthcare.
Donato’s book has been well received in the US, which he believes reflects “a thirst for new leadership” and also the situation of many people as the US emerges from the pandemic, for example loneliness is “the new chronic condition of the 21st Century.”
Donato is engaged in a dialogue with Boston University School of Public Health who are planning to base a curriculum on the book. Like Stephen Trzeciak, a former guest on the Compassionate Leadership Interview, he believes compassion can and should be taught.
Two people who have inspired Donato on his journey are Pope John Paul II and Robert F Kennedy. He says they both demonstrated that life is not about doing great things, but about doing small things that have the capacity to generate great change.
A book that Donato would recommend to aspiring leaders is ‘The Seven-Storey Mountain’ by Thomas Merton.
Donato considers self-care is first and foremost about a sense of fulfilment, which in turn arises from the love, joy, and peace one finds in serving others.
His advice to his 20-year-old self would be “never ever forfeit the opportunity to build a relationship with someone” and “be yourself… it’s a lot easier.”
Sophie Stephenson, supporting people to be themselves
Sophie Stephenson is a teacher, facilitator and faculty member of Time to Think. (Listeners will recall that I interviewed Nancy Kline, founder of The Thinking Environment®, in episode 39 of the Compassionate Leadership Interview.)
Sophie’s CV includes The Royal Navy, The Prince’s Trust, the Australian wine industry, and a masters in teaching from Melbourne University. After 10 years in Australia, she returned to the UK to start her own business, The Thinking Project. She had spent a lot of time working in large teams, but says that in the Thinking Environment she found ‘her thing.’
Nancy Kline says of Sophie “her delight in life permeates it all.” Sophie says that right from being a little girl she has had “a sense of the sheer wonder of being alive.”
Her LinkedIn profile states “I help brilliant women develop unshakeable confidence so they can make the impact they want without burning themselves out.” For Sophie a big part of confidence is having a really good felt sense our own boundaries: she says boundaries are not what keep people out but what allow us to feel safe enough to let people in. Burnout often results from internalising assumptions that we are not doing enough or we are not enough.
Sophie loves working with women: she believes women are key to helping us transform our ways of working and the world we are living in. “We need that embodiment of compassion, kindness, wisdom, and treating people like they matter.”
Sophie offers a range of courses and retreats. She says it is the people that make them so special. Her courses attract people who are already interested in how they create the conditions for themselves and others around them to thrive. Then she tries to create a place and a space where people can open up to who they are.
Sophie has always written (and read). She sees herself primarily as a teacher, and to her writing is just an alternative way of communicating. She doesn’t see a tension between her courses and her writing. She loves them both.
In Sophie’s December 2021 newsletter she includes a link to the Rosa Guayaba film Sawalmem. It asks “What is one word from your ancestral language which changed your life and that you can offer to the next generation to heal our relationship with the [natural] world?” Her own answer question to that question borrows from the Zen Buddhism tradition: “you have enough (as you are, right now).”
Sophie’s proudest achievement is working for herself for 12 years. It would have been easy to revert to strategy and operations in an organisation, but instead she allowed herself the time to develop a business around what she loved.
A lesson that Sophie has had to learn in her career is not to base her success criteria on the views of others. She now has the confidence to forge her own path, and is more discerning about whose opinion matters to her.
So many people have inspired Sophie on her journey, including Thich Nhat Hanh, Nancy Kline, Brene Brown, Tara Sophia Mohr. The common denominator is that they are all teachers that are working on being vulnerable and authentic. Equally she is inspired by everyone she listens to.
Sophie reads at least a book a week. She recommends that aspiring leaders don’t read books that promise to make you a better leader, but books that might make you a better human. She loves “The Anatomy of Peace” by the Arbinger Institute, also “Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet” by Thich Nhat Hanh. “The Way Out is In” (Plum Village) and “On Being” (Krista Tippett) are two of her favourite podcasts.
Sophie’s tries to live her life as an act of self-care. She doesn’t see self-care as a separate activity. In particular she doesn’t let herself get too busy.
Her advice to her 20-year-old self would be to stop looking outside herself for the things she will only find inside herself.
Sonya Wallbank, supporting health and wellbeing in the NHS
Dr Sonya Wallbank is People Director for an integrated care system, and part-time senior consultant to the King’s Fund.
Sonya started her career in banking. The birth of her children sparked an interest in psychology, which led on to an undergraduate degree and then a doctorate in psychology. Working alongside the NHS in Leicester she explored restorative approaches that allow you to undertake challenging work whilst looking after your own mental and physical health.
She has spent the last few years in NHS England and improvement supporting staff in the pandemic.
In 2013 Sonya’s work on restorative clinical supervision for NHS Midlands was a finalist in the Nursing Times Awards. This recognised that staff needed an opportunity to think about burn out, and their stress responses, and to increase their compassion satisfaction, and therefore the pleasure theyfound in their job.
Nowadays Sonya works most of her week in organisational design and improvement for an Integrated Care System and one day for the Kings Fund. She says the ICS work brings a sense of truth and delivery into the King’s Fund work.
She says the work she did during the pandemic is the most significant thing that she has done during her working life. She says NHS England and Improvement “addressed the basic needs first”, namely a hot drink and food at work, and food shopping for home. With knowledge from other countries, they were able to help staff understand what they were facing and think through their response in advance.
They looked at the experience of the person outside as well as in work, and considered what it would be like for health workers going home and having to explain the impact of the pandemic to their partner and children.
2020 brought a fresh understanding into the health service of the critical importance of health and wellbeing. Sonya says that the NHS needs to see money spent on health and wellbeing as an investment in its long-term future, reducing staff absence and turnover. The pandemic has shown that “you can’t be expected to come in and do this work and not be touched by
In the 2021 NHS Staff Survey 33% of staff said that their trust takes positive action on health and wellbeing. That still leaves two thirds of staff in a situation where their trust is not taking positive action, or at least, if it is they aren’t aware of it. Sonya acknowledges that Trusts are still very wary of being accused of wasting public money, but they need to appreciate that caring for staff is essential to the future of the NHS.
Nonetheless Sonya would agree with Michael West when he says there has been a “sea change” in the leadership approach adopted by the NHS. She says we have reached a peak in the innovation-adoption curve. People can see that collaborative working across boundaries is the future. However, there is a need for an investment in the associated infrastructure.
Sonya believes a compassionate leadership approach is the way forward, but she recognises that it splits people, that there are those who believe it is a softer and less effective option.
Her biggest career mistake was to take on an executive role in an organisation that was ‘broken.’ Ultimately, she could not find enough allies to make the differences she wanted to make.
Dame Emily Lawson is someone who has inspired Sonya on her journey. She led the PPE and vaccination programmes during the pandemic.
Sonya’s favourite book is ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ by Dale Carnegie. She would also recommend ‘Dare to Lead’ by Brene Brown.
Her self-care regime involves surrounding herself with people she loves, doing things that she enjoys, and maintaining a sense of humour. She also tries to keep enough energy in reserve for her home life.
Finally, it is about objectively observing the transient nature of some of the challenges we face.
Her advice to her 20-year-old self would be “keep going” and “trust your instincts.”
Elena Armijo, supporting women in the workplace
Elena Armijo is a Certified Coach, Dare to Lead Facilitator, and founder of the C-Suite Collective, an organisation that supports women in the workplace.
Elena started out as an opera singer. Music was a major element of the culture in Las Cruces, Texas, where she grew up. A masters degree in vocal performance was followed by a career singing opera internationally in her 20s and early 30s.
She switched careers after a period of 4 years during which she spent 10 months a year on the road, and was in danger of becoming burnt out. Her relationships were suffering.
She enlisted a coach to help her take stock. She came to question some of her motives for her choice of vocation up until that point. The experience of working with a coach was pivotal to her, and she resolved to qualify as a coach herself.
Elena contends that we need more women in positions of power because they bring a sense of empathy and compassion. It’s not that men don’t have these qualities, but the tradition of male leadership, particularly in the US, is one of power dynamics and control. Men and women have things to teach one another. For example, from the men that have mentored Elena, she has learnt to find her voice and stand up for herself.
Elena maintains that “high-achieving women are under-supported in the workplace at every level”: because they are one in a sea of many they don’t often get their needs met. For example, they may need flexibility around parenting, maternity leave, or emotional bandwidth generally. They need supporting from a different perspective. The same HR package can’t be expected to work for everyone.
Initially the pandemic exacerbated the situation that women face. In dual-income families it was often the woman who gave up her position in order to home school. However, after two years of the pandemic, a more nuanced conversation is emerging in relation to needs and support.
Elena believes excellence in supporting women is characterised by a culture in which women are free to say what is on their minds, where shame is surfaced, and where mental health issues, including incipient burnout, are addressed as they emerge. Coaching can play a key role in this.
The first stage of putting such a culture in place is a diagnostic one, using 360 appraisals, and referring to exit interviews. Shifting the culture is a long-term endeavour, starting with the C-suite.
Concerning job interviews, Elena says “now is a beautiful time to ask questions, and remember that when you are being interviewed you are also interviewing the other person.”
Becoming a Dare to Lead Facilitator was “a really beautiful moment.” Elena says that Brene Brown has created a common language to discuss things openly [shame, guilt, vulnerability, authenticity] that were formerly rarely spoken of.
Elena’s proudest achievement in her career as a coach is in “serving marginalised people that get to see possibility for the first time.” (And as an opera singer, singing at Carnegie Hall.)
Her biggest mistake as a rookie coach was to try to go too deep too soon with a senior executive. He wasn’t feeling ready to be so vulnerable, and he fired her. They later apologised to one another. It taught Elena the difference between being with people and pushing people.
On her journey, Elena was inspired by Michael Madden, her first boss after her opera career. He gave her the opportunity to build what was next for her, and encouragement.
To aspiring leaders, Elena would recommend the Dare to Lead and Unlocking Us podcasts, both hosted by Brene Brown. Also anything by Simon Sinek, and ‘I Feel Awful: Chronicles of Leadership’ by Christine Sachs. One of her favourite books on leadership is ‘The Culture Code’ by Daniel Coyle.
Elena adopts an in-the-moment approach to self-care, asking herself each morning what she needs that day. Sometimes that can be a cup of tea, or it may be a walk with her dogs, yoga, meditation or working out. For her it’s part of “r
Nancy Kline, the promise that changes everything
Nancy Kline is Founder and President of Time to Think, Author of Time to Think, More Time to Think, and The Promise That Changes Everything: I Won’t Interrupt You. She is a coach and speaker, and a visiting lecturer at Henley Business School.
Before ‘coach’ became a common part of the business vocabulary, her job involved listening and helping people to listen to one another, and Nancy was already working on the question “How do we help people to think for themselves?”
Nancy has always been a writer – she has written 11 books in all - but ‘Time to Think’ was her breakthrough best seller. At present, and for a while now, she has had to manage the tension between writing, and running a leadership development and coaching business. Ultimately, she has recognised that the two are inextricable and that her writing and her thinking environment work serve each other.
Nancy says she experienced her mother (and father) as what she would now call “an embodied thinking environment.” She reflects that her mother hardly ever interrupted her, and she seemed interested all of the time, so much so that her ‘way of being’ became what Nancy understood listening to be.
She says “The quality of everything we do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first. And then the quality of our thinking depends on the way people are treating us while we are thinking.”
Nancy’s vision is that one day every human being will live in a thinking environment from birth to death. She says ‘Time to Think’ the organisation is not really an organisation but a loose network of qualified professionals. The strategy of ‘Time to Think’ is “to discover, teach, and qualify people” and to work with those qualified people and others to learn and discover more.
Nancy’s leadership philosophy is that “the core job of a leader is to generate the finest thinking from everybody whom they influence” which requires them to be able to create the conditions for good independent thinking wherever they are.
She believes that there are differences in what the male and female cultures allow by way of instruction in how to lead. She believes that there are facets of female culture that allow them to create thinking
environments more consistently than male culture. However, you can learn to superimpose on your own culture the other gender’s cultural permission to create thinking environments. As a generalisation, you often find a better-quality thinking environment where a team has both men and women.
Nancy feels deeply committed to the NHS. She came to the UK to live when she married Christopher Spence. She sees the NHS as “one expression of the finest in civilisation.” She believes that human beings are born with a right to healthcare and to education and “there’s something about going to bed at night and knowing that everybody’s going to get the care they need whether or not they can afford it. There’s something dignifying of me in knowing that they’re being dignified.”
Nancy’s new book ‘The Promise that Changes Everything’ focuses on the one thing that Nancy considers to be the distinguishing characteristic of a thinking environment and that is the promise “I won’t interrupt you.” The book delineates the four generic systems of interruption that we live in.
Nancy says that “the nature of a thinking environment… is that it is ever emergent… we are noticing new things all the time.” So, has she now written all that there is to say on the thinking environment? Probably not!
Nancy is proud that she has stayed true to the idea that the conditions for independent thinking are there to be discovered. Therefore, it was never to become a methodology, but it was always going to be a fluid concept. And from the beginning she has wanted there to be “less company and more practitioners.” “Small is beautiful” has remained her organising principle.
She has made plenty of mistakes but sees them as pos
Michael West II, Michael's lockdown project
Michael West is Professor in organisational effectiveness and innovation, Lancaster University and Visiting Fellow to the King’s Fund, the NHS Think Tank. He is a former Executive Dean of Aston Business School.
This is Chris Whitehead’s second interview with Michael. If you want some background, please listen to episode 13 of the Compassionate Leadership Interview. In this present episode we are going to focus on Michael’s lockdown project, the book Compassionate Leadership: Sustaining Wisdom, Humanity and Presence in Health and Social Care.
Michael’s interest in compassion stems from his meditation practice, which has brought him into contact with world religions for which compassion is fundamental. At the same time, his research and consultancy work on leadership and culture, in industry and the NHS, highlighted the importance of positivity and relationships in teams and organisations to effectiveness, creativity, and innovation.
The pandemic created a space for Michael in which he could bring together research evidence, case studies, and practical approaches to compassionate leadership. The book was supported by Health Education and Improvement Wales, which has a 10-year strategy to implement compassionate leadership.
Organisational culture is a recurring theme in the book. Michael characterises a culture of compassion as one in which people are present with each other, there’s a strong emphasis on relationships, and there is a strong ethic of caring and support for people who are experiencing challenge or difficulty.
Michael believes there has been a “sea change” over the past two years in the leadership approach adopted by the NHS. And this applies to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in particular. In England compassionate leadership is part of the NHS People Plan, but practice is less consistent.
Coaching and mentoring receive numerous mentions in Michael’s book. Coaching and mentoring are about being present, attending to the other, listening with fascination, helping them to articulate their thoughts, explore challenges, and be comfortable with ambiguity. Therefore coaching and mentoring formalise some of the behaviours of compassionate leadership.
In the book Michael says “experiencing compassion for others shapes individuals’ appraisals about themselves.” He believes when we experience an interaction with another who is truly present with us, it enables us to be more present with ourselves.
He says “it’s a myth that performance cannot be managed with compassion.” Michael believes that compassionate leadership actually enables a stronger emphasis on performance, because out of compassion comes a motivation for delivering high quality continually improving care. And it gives us the skills we need to listen to people and understand what is at the root of unsatisfactory performance.
Michael’s previous book was entitled ‘Effective Teamwork’ and this latest book is informed in part by that one. He uses the expression ‘real teams’ to refer to teams that have a clear purpose, shared goals, and take time out to reflect on their effectiveness.
Michael believes that compassionate leadership can help avoid scandals such as Mid Staffs, Bristol, and Alder Hey. The research he and colleagues conducted following Mid Staffs, revealed that in the Trusts that were less effective, senior leaders tended to be focused on managing upwards and ‘comfort eeking’ in their discussions with staff. In the highest performing organisations, leaders were focused on their vision for the Trust, and intent on ‘problem sensing’ in their staff interactions.
Michael contends that compassionate leadership is one of the keys to innovation, because it creates a psychologically safe environment, and that in turn enables the risk taking associated with innovation.
This year NHS Wales published their Compassionate Leadership Principles which they co-created with Michael. NHS Scotland has a programme called
Fantastic - well worth a listen.
Some fantastic content - I particularly enjoyed the interview with Hugh Facey. Please keep more content coming!