Recognizing the Role of Self-Compassion in Leadership & Culture

When we think about the traits of successful leaders, we include characteristics like integrity, honesty, emotional IQ, growth mindset, confidence and resilience. We don’t usually list self-compassion, a quality that underpins many of those other traits.

“It’s incompatible with the old ideas or work ethos of hard work, to keep your head down and get the job done – whatever the cost,” explains Mona Shattell, professor and associate dean in the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. “And to show complete confidence at every moment.”

Self-compassion is generally defined as treating yourself as you would a good friend who is having trouble.

It’s a valuable leadership trait because it reduces feelings of self-doubt, supports critical thinking and problem-solving, and compels us to keep trying.

“Leaders can breathe; give ourselves a break by not being so hard on ourselves,” adds Shattell, whose research focuses on mindful self-compassion. “We are more authentic and willing to be more human.”

Beyond Self-Care for Nurses

With the challenges presented by COVID, there has been a lot of focus on self-care for nurses. And justifiably so.

“Nurses are working long hours wearing suffocating PPE and are required to provide high-level care for extended periods,” says Robin Hertel, EdS, MSN, RN, CMSRN, past-president of the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses. “These factors place a strain on the nurse’s resilience and ability to recover. Working in crisis mode for extended periods of time decreases the ability to absorb and retain information and, as such, nurses used to operating at extremely high levels throughout their shifts are challenged.”

With this difficult load, organizations need to be promoting self-compassion as well – especially for nurse leaders who “model a more effective and healthy way to lead and to work: It’s okay to take a break. It’s okay to be imperfect,” Shattell says.

By easing negative emotions and focusing on the next best steps, self-compassion improves our ability to engage in self-care, bounce back from difficulties, make better decisions and find a way forward. All traits we value in leaders.

When we practice self-compassion, we tend to treat others more compassionately, too. As more team members learn to treat themselves with more kindness and less judgment, the work environment improves, too. There’s more teamwork, less turnover and better patient care.

More than Training for Nurse Leaders

How can your organization support self-compassion as a leadership skill?

“Many people might say, ‘add it to the yearly required training’, but I don’t think that is the best idea,” Shattell asserts. “First of all, this isn’t just an individual or a leader issue, it’s an organizational one.”

Adding self-compassion strategies to leadership training does show your organization values the skills and ensures nurses develop them. But creating a culture of self-compassion is required to reduce burnout, improve recruiting and retention, and boost overall organizational performance and patient care.

The first step is understanding how your current workplace culture influences self-compassion.

“We tend to look to individuals to do differently, do better, be better,” Shattell says, “but what about our structures make this difficult? How can our organizations be more self-compassionate? This is the real issue, challenge and opportunity for real change.”

About Margot Carmichael Lester

Margot Carmichael Lester is a North Carolina-based business and brand journalist who has covered healthcare and staffing for more than 20 years. She also writes about moviemaking for the International Cinematographers Guild, specializing in action cinema, and co-authored the award-winning teen writing book, Be a Better Writer. She earned her BA in journalism from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and is a rabid Tar Heel basketball fan.