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Dominic Raab
Leadership and teamwork

Compassionate Leadership: an antidote to tyranny

An opinion from Stephen Blumenthal and Deborah Lee.

24 April 2023

The resignation of Dominic Raab following the inquiry led by Adam Tolley KC provides a helpful focus on the culture of leadership in politics and in our wider society.

Dominance hierarchies are as old as time itself, but we are evolved beyond our crustacean forebearers. Dominance is not an inevitability: there are more evolved ways to lead social groups that enhance productivity and mental wellbeing. The way power is exercised is complex. It can be rooted in threat, focused on getting the task done, with little regard for the experience of those lower in the pecking order. On the other hand, it can be underpinned by compassion, where the motivation is affiliative, collegiate, promotes social safeness, leading to greater productively and mental wellbeing.

What is the right formula for leadership, and what gets the job done?

Leadership styles

Mr Raab opined that the inquiry set a 'very dangerous precedent', with ministers now fearful that they may be dealt with in the same way, if they 'fairly' bring 'direct challenge'. He said, 'If the bar, the threshold for bullying is lowered that low, it's almost impossible for ministers to deliver for the British people and I think it'll have a chilling effect on effective government'.

Retired senior civil servant, Lord McDonald, who worked with Raab at the Foreign Office, described his former boss as 'a tough taskmaster' whose methods did not help him to achieve his objectives. Timely attention is thus drawn not just to emotional wellbeing, but to the effectiveness of 'toughness' in accomplishing organisational aims.

What methods would have enabled Raab to achieve his objectives, whilst also keeping his staff engaged and focused on their health and welfare?

An autocratic leadership style, based on hierarchy and obedience, tends to be coercive, focused primarily on achieving the goals of the organisation. Leaders tend to display low levels of trust and use threat as a means of keeping those below them in line.

In some circumstances, direct command based on hierarchy achieves results, such as when workers are less informed of their job description. They can be effective in the short term. But this is not simply a case of producing results despite the personal costs to the work force. Authoritarian command and control can be benign, yet they also have a habit of sliding towards tyranny. 

Despotism without regard for mental health of the workforce is all too common. The belief that the euphemistically expressed 'direct challenge' enhances performance is, in our view, a marker of poor knowledge about leadership at best. More likely, as Lord McDonald suggests, it is an own goal in that aims and objectives are not achieved, whilst the workforce is simultaneously demoralised.

The animal world

Findings of mammalian research is instructive. Young mammals, such as rats, develop dominance hierarchies during play. The larger animal wins by pinning the smaller one, but if they do so more than 70% of the time, the game breaks down and the smaller animal withdraws. Coercion without persuasion is pointless, it simply doesn't achieve its objectives.

Similarly, Frans de Waal's primatology research reveals that the alpha male must be generous, empathic and peacekeeping, rather than big, strong and intimidating, in order to exert influence and maintain their position at the top of the hierarchy. You don't have to be the strongest physically to be the alpha, but you do have to have a strength of emotional intelligence.

In the human world, the science on leadership styles, job satisfaction and productivity suggests that democratic approaches outdo autocratic management. Meaningful relational connections at work are good for producing results. Research shows that having a best friend in the workplace doesn't distract an employee; on the contrary, it leads to lower stress, more engagement and greater productivity.

As in the animal world, hierarchy is necessary, but in the human world this needs to be infused with emotional equality. Hierarchy is not in itself bad, but it is rooted in social rank and needs to be counterbalanced by attention to care as a motivation. A competitive hierarchy relies on upranking and downranking to promote safety. Safety is achieved through gaining social status. There are only two outcomes in this; to feel better-than or worse-than. This is the root of mental distress and ultimately mental ill-health. As Ehrmann wisely counsels in Desiderata, 'If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself'.

The creation of safeness

Compassionate leadership is a motivational system rooted in the basic human instinct to care and to create safe affiliative connected relationships. This is rooted in safeness, a concept quite distinct from that of safety. According to clinical psychologist Paul Gilbert, safeness is not about the elimination of threat, it is about the creation of safeness in an environment that is caring, supportive, helpful, and friendly. In this secure, safe context, the workforce is inspired to do the best job they can because it matters to them, rather than because they're frightened of what might happen if they don't perform.

Effective teams need goals, shared vision, task management and accountability. But this does not need to be at the cost of psychological well-being. Authority needs to command, but we need leaders to deliver this through a lens of psychological equality, so that every member of the team feels valued and supported in terms of their contribution to shared goals. It is time for training in compassionate leadership whereby our leaders are motivated by the greater good, alleviating distress by promoting community cohesion and collective objectives, rather than using outmoded styles which we know lead to poor mental health, and contribute to individual success at the expense of team effort.

Dr Stephen Blumenthal is Consultant Clinical Psychologist

Dr Deborah Lee is Consultant Clinical Psychologist

Find more on compassionate leadership in our archive.