14 Principles of Compassionate Leadership

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

After years of experience as a manager, a department head as well as an observer of managers' behavior, I've had the opportunity to learn from my challenges and successes. I worked in dysfunctional government institutions and for-profit, private companies. I've had wise mentors and supervisors...and some who taught me a great deal about the kind of person and the kind of boss I vowed to never become. Eventually, I found myself in the unique position of having the opportunity to train my successor for the extremely important position of occupational therapy services manager at a large state hospital. It gave me the push I needed to organize my thoughts about what the qualities of a superior leader are, and ideas for how to put those ideals into practice. What I passed on is broadly applicable to management in many settings, and I firmly believe that these 14 Principles are traits that any leader can understand and apply immediately; they do not require years to put into practice, though speaking for myself, I will likely spend the rest of my life trying to master some of these qualities.

Even if you are not in a leadership position, this might be worth a read if you aspire to be, or if your supervisor ever asked you the question, "How can I do better?"

14 Principles of

Compassionate Leadership

1. Have an open door policy and publicize it. Letting people know they are free to talk to you when needed, and that they can approach you and trust you with their concerns or sensitive matters is key to building trust.

2. Ask yourself, “How can I be of service?” today, tomorrow, and every day. When you actively look for ways to be helpful to everyone you work with or supervise, they will look for ways to help you too.

3. Develop a thick skin. Don’t take criticism personally. Sometimes people do not always see the big picture, or know what you know. Some people’s first response is to react with negative judgments and work their way back. Expect to receive little praise or recognition for what you do, and expect a great deal of critical feedback, some of it fair and justified, some of it unfair and unreasonable. Many people working in mental health settings have experienced trauma, and some people will exercise the transference defense mechanism and lash out at the easiest target who symbolically represents any authority figure who traumatized them in their past. There are often few to no consequences attached to lashing out at the manager or disregarding their instructions.

Therefore, the limit of your authority is determined by what you can persuade and inspire people to do, not by what you order or demand they do, even if policy says otherwise. This means that you will get nowhere if people fear you, and everywhere if people trust you.

Work environments are full of gossip, pettiness, office politics, and immature behavior of all stripes. To be effective, managers, must continually demonstrate that they are above that, even when they are the recipient of rude or disrespectful behavior. Management is not a good career move for anyone who strongly desires or demands justice or fairness for their self. Holding grudges, retaliating against rude people, or abusing supervisory power to hurt those who give offence is the surest path to self-destruction a manager can take. Forbearance and tact are difficult skills to practice, let alone master, especially in the face of bad behavior, but they are essential none the less.

4. Be flexible. If something is not working, don’t be afraid to back up, regroup, and try it again a different way. Get feedback from supervisees and others about how things affect them.

5. Recognize good work at minimum twice as often as you address poor performance. Not just in terms of frequency, but sincerity as well. If you tell people they are supported or doing a good job, but your actions don’t reflect your words, it’s worse than saying nothing at all.

6. Be a collaborative leader. And listen. Listening to others’ perspectives shows you care about what they think. Admitting that you don’t have all the answers, and publicly acknowledging staff for their achievements all demonstrate to staff that you want them to succeed, that you do not feel superior to them, and that you can be humble enough to admit it when you’re wrong are qualities of good managers. Actively soliciting feedback from supervisees about what their needs are, how you can help them, what they think of your job performance, and what you can do to be more effective or improve demonstrates that you are not afraid to hold yourself to the same standards you hold your employees to.

7. Be transparent. Nothing is more anxiety-provoking than finding out about major changes at the last minute, or not at all. When people feel their boss is not sharing information with them, they won’t share information with their boss. Also, selectively sharing general information with some people but not others, inviting some people into the process while excluding others demonstrates duplicity, pettiness, immaturity, and a lack of integrity. In large settings, managers are more disconnected from what’s happening. Staff become your eyes and ears. Being up front and honest—even when communicating an unpopular truth or agenda—takes courage and ultimately builds trust. Obfuscation and withholding information builds resentment and doesn’t inspire people to give their best or give you their trust and respect.

8. Have clear, consistent expectations. Employees have a right to know what is expected of them, and when and how to do it. Obviously, many types of jobs are performed in a fast-paced environment, where things change rapidly. That said, if your priorities are unclear or they change often, it sends a signal to employees that their manager is incompetent, doesn’t understand their job, doesn’t know what they want, and doesn’t care about how their actions add to the overall workload.

Nothing creates stress and resentment faster than a boss who issues contradictory but equally urgent demands, whether or not there are negative consequences (implied or stated) attached.

Corollary to having clear expectations, it is a manager’s responsibility to understand and follow workplace policy, state and federal regulations. Managers that who make up their own policies that contradict hospital or state policies put themselves in legal jeopardy, whether or not employees call them out on it, and sooner or later they always do.

9. Demonstrate care, compassion, and empathy through deeds as much as words. Saying you care rings hollow unless accompanied by actions that demonstrate it.

10. Create a paper trail. Having e-mail or other records undisputedly proves what you said to whom. Be wary of people who say they only prefer to discuss matters on the phone. Face to face and phone chats are better than e-mail for conveying controversial or emotionally sensitive topics, but make sure that when you issue instructions—or receive instructions or information—to have a summary of it in writing or by e-mail. That way, no one can claim later that you didn’t do something that you did. A common way people abrogate responsibility and pass the buck is by pretending they were not informed. With e-mail records, you can prove that you did indeed inform them. Though not technically necessary, I sometimes change my outlook setting to request a “read receipt” and “receipt confirmation.” These settings make it possible to track the fact that your e-mail was received and opened, and you can use them without the recipient being able to see that their communication is being tracked, if you know how. These are invaluable tools for protecting yourself, and I highly recommend you use them.

11. See people as human beings first, and employees, patients, superiors, or colleagues second. We often get lost in the socially constructed artificial realities we have created where people become the sum of their role, status, rank, or title. This is one-dimensional. Reminding ourselves that everyone we interact with is a human being is a simple but powerful tool that helps our actions become more compassionate and empathetic. The custodian has something to teach the CEO, and vice versa.

Rank and privilege do not in and of themselves confer knowledge and wisdom. Openness, self-awareness, insight, and humility do.

12. Accountability is a two-way street. It is a delusion of some managers that they can shift blame or the burden of accountability on to their subordinates. We hold ultimate responsibility for our actions, as the OT manager you can think of every licensed OT staff’s actions at work as an extension of your own. That’s another reason why hewing to scope of practice, code of ethics, hospital and state policy, and communicating clear, consistent expectations to staff are so important. We are ultimately responsible to and for the patients in our care, and the taxpayers who employ us. If we violate the laws and policies that hold us accountable because we are asked or ordered to by someone in authority, be it through malice or ignorance, we are no less culpable for our actions than a common criminal. Worse, we risk becoming part of a corrupt system that promotes bad behavior when it ought to be checking it. History has repeatedly shown that “I was just following orders” is not a morally, ethically, or legally valid excuse. Our first loyalty is to our patients, and to the laws and policies that keep them safe and us accountable. All other priorities are secondary and expendable.

13. Avoid these negative, damaging behaviors: manipulation, playing two sides off of each other, playing favorites, duplicity, micromanaging, being dictatorial, having poor professional boundaries. There is no worse boss than one that is vindictive, insecure, encourages submissive and servile behavior, manages by inspiring fear rather than trust, punishes honesty and rewards those who are best at telling them only what they want to hear. Worse than incompetent is a boss who covers their incompetence by blaming or attacking others, and by evaluating people and situations only in terms of what they think helps them look good or makes them look bad. Such people are weak at baseline, by dint of their inflated sense of self-importance and narcissism, but their fragility is further enhanced by their inability to see things from others’ perspectives, and their disconnection between their actions and others’ perception of their actions.

This sort of boss is unclear in their demands, but rigid in their expectations. Because they don’t know what they’re doing, what they want, or understand their workers’ roles or job functions, an inferior boss reacts with fear and hostility, and shirks their responsibility to know by putting the onus on their staff to try to read their minds correctly. And this is impossible to do, since their muddled and disjointed actions reflect the thought process that inspired them. This kind of manager will tell you that their authority is what justifies their infallibility and vice versa. Not only is this illogical and untrue, no employee believes it or has any respect for managers who operate this way.

Honestly, there are no better principles of good management than the things we all were taught from kindergarten on: treat people how’d you’d like to be treated, say what you mean and mean what you say, be honest and forthright, be kind, give others the benefit of the doubt if you want them to do so for you, don’t use double standards, don’t ask anyone to do anything you couldn’t or wouldn’t do yourself, put your employees’ and patients’ best interests first, and yours second. Also, if you micromanage or exercise other controlling behaviors, people will evade and passively resist you, and they will become afraid, lose self-confidence, they will get the message that their manager has no trust or faith in them, and your actions will have far less reach and impact. Micromanaging also stifles creativity and innovation, promotes apathy, and creates layers of bureaucracy that waste time and money.

14. Karma is real. It is a commonly stated third law of Newtonian physics that, “every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” Stated another way, what goes around comes around, and the energy that returns to you is the wind generated by the force of your actions. That wind can buoy you and carry you forward, or it can impede your progress and far worse. Therefore, a wise manager treads lightly, and acts with as much insight, forbearance, and compassion as possible, looking out for all possible consequences both intended and unintended, because the consequences of all our actions return to us in the end.

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