Compassionate leadership for compassionate housing associations

21 August 2017

There are three core leadership challenges for every organisation – direction, alignment and commitment. How do we achieve agreement on direction? How do we coordinate our work so that it all fits together? And how do we maintain commitment to the collective across the organisation rather than just focusing on the success of our own areas?

Having published research on leadership and culture in a variety of organisations, I know that compassionate leadership must be at the heart when organisations have a mission to serve those in need and create stronger, healthier, happier and kinder communities. When it is, those three leadership challenges will all be met. 

Similarly, housing associations are united by a single purpose to ensure everyone has the opportunity to live in a quality home they can afford. They maintain a social purpose at the heart of their business, whether that was building good homes for Victorian workers or helping young families get on the housing ladder today. And through providing homes for those most at need, housing associations have always embodied a core value of compassion towards people and communities. 

That compassion is enacted through four behaviours – attending and listening to customers, residents and communities; understanding their needs; empathising with them; and then serving or helping them achieve what they wish for.

Sustaining cultures with a moral heart and an orientation of support and service, requires leaders who manage or support those they lead – their staff – to treat them with compassion through the way they lead. There are four elements to leading your teams compassionately:

First and most important, compassionate leadership means paying attention and listening to your staff – Nancy Kline’s wonderful phrase ‘listening with fascination’ captures this perfectly.

Second, compassionate leadership means taking the time to understand the challenges your teams face. Ideally this is a shared understanding, achieved through honest and supportive dialogue, because this will be both more accurate and helpful. 

Third, compassionate leadership means that, as leaders, we empathise with those working within our housing associations – feeling for and with them while being able to tolerate rather than over-identify with any distress.

And this provides the motivation for the fourth element of compassionate leadership – serving or helping those we lead in our organisations. After all, that is what good leadership is – supporting those we lead to enable them to provide high-quality, continually improving and compassionate service to their residents and communities. 

It’s not difficult to remember and practise these four behaviours. And, as leaders, it’s enormously rewarding and effective to practise them each day. Crucially, we know that in organisations where leaders lead in this way, they provide a better service and achieve better business performance.

And because every interaction by every leader every day shapes the culture of our organisations, compassionate leadership has a profound and positive effect on relationships between leaders and their teams. It has a knock-on effect on how colleagues behave towards each other at work. Most importantly, it has a profound and positive effect on the relationships with clients and the communities they serve.

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