Compassion Conversation Series
Perspectives on compassionate leadership and why it is a “must have” — not just a “nice to have”
In this conversation, I am gaining Flora Nicholson’s perspectives on compassionate leadership. She shares her personal journey and her passion for compassionate leadership to be seen not as a “nice to have” but as a vital quality in today’s world.
Compassion matters. Compassion matters more today than any other day if we, as leaders, want to tackle the biggest issues of our lives and of our world.
— Flora Nicholson
This is the eighth article in a series of interviews where I explore how purpose-driven professionals who are dedicated to contribute towards a just, equitable and sustainable world relate to the notion of “compassion”. What does compassion mean and look like in practice in our professional lives? What opportunities, challenges and tensions arise when we think of applying compassion? 10 professionals offer their personal stories and perspectives.
Flora is a Strategy Consultant with 14 years of work experience in both the private sector (FTSE 500 company Sodexo) and third sector (British Red Cross, Cancer Research UK, British Heart Foundation). Her passion is building strategies that bring people together and enable organisations to have a sustainable, positive impact on the world.
Outside of work, she is a trustee for The Land Collective and practises music, kickboxing and yoga (not usually at the same time!).
SJ: What is it about “compassion” that matters to you?
FN: When I reflect on the challenges we face in the world today, a global pandemic, climate change, and social inequalities, it is very clear that we need leaders who can address these in a compassionate way. Leaders who bring people together and inspire them to take action. Leaders who understand the issues and, despite how overwhelming they are, find practical ways to solve them.
SJ: How do you define compassionate leadership?
FN: Compassionate leadership is about what you, as a human being, can do to help others.
The “compassion” element is crucial: an understanding that we are connected to other people and to the planet. The “leadership” element relates to how we choose to act in response to the challenges we see.
SJ: How do you perceive the link between self-compassion and compassion for other people?
FN: It is a sliding scale; you can’t have the one without the other. If you go too far towards compassion for others, as a leader, you will burn out because you will only be serving others and completely forgetting yourself. On the other hand, if you are only focused on yourself, the needs of others will be forgotten. To be a compassionate leader, you need to find that equilibrium.
SJ: What is an example of finding this equilibrium based on your own experiences?
FN: When I was leading the volunteering team for Cancer Research UK, I was responsible for setting best practices for the recruitment and management of our 40,000 volunteers.
On the surface, everything was going well. My team was brilliant; we won an internal award, built innovative partnerships and galvanised the whole organisation around our new strategy.
Behind the scenes, it was a different story. When a close family member was diagnosed with cancer, I lost my way as a leader. It somehow felt that by working more, I would help to save the person I loved.
My experience of this burnout meant that I was unable to acknowledge that at this point, I was the one who needed support. I as a leader, should have talked to my team and shared that I was not coping, that I was overwhelmed.
To be a compassionate leader, you need to show your humanity. This will enable the people around you to recognise their own struggles in the ones you face.
This in turn enables them to become compassionate leaders as they support you.
SJ: I imagine it to be a vulnerable experience — being able to sit long enough with your own pain and then reaching out to ask for help as a leader. Vulnerability is often coined as the gateway into compassion, what do you think of this?
Yes completely. I have really changed my model of leadership, refusing to act this role of the leader as superhero. Compassion is anything but weakness, compassion is strength, and we as leaders must have it if we are serious about social and climate change.
SJ: In your story, I really see the willingness to turn toward and stay with something painful, which often can be the core of compassion. What has helped you develop on your compassionate leadership journey?
FN: When my youngest cousin took her own life aged 29, this was a turning point in my compassion journey. I realised I could turn up in meetings and look fine, delivering what I needed to deliver, and at the same time experience grief of a devastating magnitude. Developing my sense of empathy made me more compassionate. I realised you may never know what another person has lived through — or is living through. This made me much more conscious of how essential it is to not just focus on deliverables but also how the work is delivered, making space for people’s humanity.
A few years prior to this I had completed the Mindfulness-Based Stress-Reduction training as well as the Red Cross emotional support training. Both were essential in helping me to take care of myself and people around me in times of crisis.
SJ: I am curious about your experiences where a project or a situation may not have been successful because there was a lack of compassion.
FN: With the murder of George Floyd and the ripple effect it has created throughout the world, there continues to be a crucial question around building fair and equitable organisations through compassion. Emotions run high and there is a lot of pain associated with this topic. I have sometimes witnessed a certain level of defensiveness in response to this.
We all know that diverse teams thrive. It is very difficult to be patient when you see organisations defer making progress in this area. Focusing on being compassionate helps me as a leader.
Instead of letting frustration take over, I trained myself to think: OK, what is the blocker here? How can I help this person become an ally?
And this has been a much more productive approach.
SJ: What do you see as some of tangible ways to bring forth more compassion both personally and systemically?
FN: As a strategist, I support organisations and individuals turn their vision into action. Two elements are key for this to happen. Firstly, breaking down the issue you are trying to solve into smaller steps. It brings your vision to life, makes it tangible and achievable. Two, identifying who will help you. You cannot be a compassionate leader and deliver change on your own. It is the ability to take people with you and do the tough things together that will help solve systemic issues.
SJ: That is powerful ending with a roar, calling to action. Is there anything else you would like to share or say on this topic?
FN: Thank you, Signe. Reading Jules Mason’s story is what inspired me to share mine so thank you for creating that space and enabling so many leaders to share their stories.
For leaders who are feeling really overwhelmed by the challenges we face in the world right now and want to act, I encourage people to reflect on the tools that they need, using their networks, contacting me if they want to. We need to support each other. I also highly recommend having a career coach - I have been highly privileged to work with brilliant coaches, Sarah Lane and Caroline Doran, who have been an essential part of my compassionate leadership journey.
A message of hope is that in my work, I have absolutely seen that it possible to change the world, and it is possible to do so every single day.
We can all do it, knowing that the tools are there, and knowing we are not alone.
Compassion is like a muscle. Just like when I am training with my boxing crew, the only way we get better at compassion is when we, as leaders, practise it together.
This conversation is based on Flora Nicholson’s personal views. They do not represent the views of any organisation that Flora has worked for previously.