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  • Writer's pictureMark O'Neil

Ten "C's" of Leadership- Blog #5- COMPASSION

Mark O'Neil, LFACHE, Certified Professional Co-active Coach (CPCC)

As we proceed through the list of 10 "C's" of leadership, it is essential for us to pay attention to COMPASSION as a key leadership trait. This is important in leadership of all professions, but it is particularly important in Healthcare.

Let's define compassion (from Oxford dictionary):

com.pas.sion (Noun)- sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.

Simple enough. This blog is specific to healthcare, because the word has special meaning there. I would argue that it (compassion) is our main service line, inclusive of all clinical specialties and from the time that our customers first encounter our systems; by phone, through the ED, their physician's scheduling office or online. Usually they are a bit (or a lot) frightened, at their most vulnerable, have more questions than we can answer and have caregivers almost on a pedestal, a situation that I find wholly unfair.

Once they are physically in our presence, we often ask them to undress, we poke and prod them, ask questions that sound more like a quiz (and are often redundant) and more often than not they are looking at a computer screen as much as they are looking at the patient. In other words, those that we serve often feel that they have checked their dignity at the door and put themselves at our mercy.

One very effective antidote for the above is compassion. To be sure, we also bring the world's best talents to the care that we provide and the technical and clinical expertise that will allow us to diagnose and treat most problems, but I would argue that this is second order to what is on the patient's mind when they first present to us.

So all of the above talks about the patient..... the most important person in the equation. Maybe.

There is considerable literature that is focussing on the importance of compassion when it comes to what we expect of our staff in providing compassionate care to our patients. However, only fairly recently, largely during the COVID Epidemic, has attention been focussing on what leaders need to do to show compassion for our Medical, Nursing and Support staff.

Here is a question for those that are still involved in the day to day management of healthcare:


Some articles talk about "compassion fatigue" an experience not unlike "combat fatigue". COVID brought so much of this to the surface. In the beginning especially, not only did our staff (and I mean ALL staff) have to deal with the unknowns of keeping themselves healthy when many of the people they were treating could make them sick. They had worries about their families at home and then had to deal with the political issues around the public health issues of vaccines. Politics and public health should never be mixed and shame on our political leadership for allowing this to happen.

According to the AAMC news, the University of San Diego (USCD), recently received a 100 Million dollar donation from T. Denny Stanford, a philanthropist whose interest is in the study of compassion, inspired at least in part, by the Dalai Lama. The increasing availability of MRI technology to the Neuroscience of compassion is fascinating, but unfortunately, 'above my pay grade'. However, we know the following to be true:

"Environments that cause stress deminish our capacity for compassion....We sometimes forget that even the smallest act of kindness to another, can have a profound effect on them"

James R. Doty, MD, Stanford University School of Medicine

So we need a revitalized focus on the compassion that our staff is feeling. A real challenge for leaders who are generally focussed on quality, safety, outcomes, budgets, regulation, competition..... the list goes on.

There is also the other side of the argument:

"There's a very contentious argument between those who think these programs help (to show compassion to caregivers) and others who say, 'Don't teach me meditation, Fix the EMR , fix the problems that cause the stress'

Jon B. Klein, MD PhD, University of Louisville, School of Medicine

This is one of those circumstances where both points are good and must be addressed.

So what do we do? I've written several articles on culture, that may apply here, but a culture of compassion (for our colleagues) does need more attention. Here are some of the things I would suggest:

More explicit and true commitment to knowing a little about what our colleagues are experiencing within their workgroups and at home. I'm talking about personal interest.
Providing opportunities for increased interaction among staff and not all of it around the work at hand. Creating time and space for social Infrastructure is increasingly important. These are new concepts and take time for leaders to figure out an approach.
Stories abound about colleagues coming to the aid of each other when needed. Someone has a sick child at home or is down on their financial luck. Colleagues help each other. They are not finished with their paperwork at the end of their shift, so other teammates stick around to help them finish their work. I heard many of these stories when I was working and they always made me feel good. Did I celebrate them or publicize them enough? That's a question that today's leaders need to build into their daily list of things to pay attention to. These colleagues are the real heroes today.

True "town halls", where persons are able to air their concerns and support each other. No topic should be off limits. Because our workforce is becoming increasingly diverse, these group meetings are an opportunity to foster greater understanding and empathy, two first cousins of compassion.

Finally, self compassion is very important. If we can't show compassion for ourselves, how are we supposed to show it to others? Judging by some of the interactions I have as an executive coach, healthcare leaders can fall short on this. We need to go easier on ourselves so that we can show the compassion that is needed for our teams. Its OK to not be perfect. It's ok to show vulnerability and yes, it is OK to be wrong.

I am very interested in your thoughts on this topic, especially your suggestions to add to the above list. Thanks for letting me know your thoughts and feelings. Check out my website for more on the 10 C's of Leadership.


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