The Coronavirus Crisis: Compassionate Leadership is Relevant Now More than Ever

By Prof Charlotte Villiers, Professor of Company Law and Corporate Governance (University of Bristol Law School)

The world is now in almost complete lockdown as this Covid-19 public health crisis has reached its ‘boom’ stage[1] for many countries. People are frightened for the health of themselves and their loved ones and the financial security of huge numbers of workers is at risk. In the UK, the front-line workers with the task of treating the sick and caring for them are the care professionals, clinicians and nurses in the NHS. One of the key words that guides the NHS and is embedded within its constitution is ‘compassion’.  Principle 3 states that: ‘Respect, dignity, compassion and care should be at the core of how patients and staff are treated not only because that is the right thing to do but because patient safety, experience and outcomes are all improved when staff are valued, empowered and supported.’ In its Values section, the constitution adds: ‘compassion is central to the care we provide and respond with humanity and kindness to each person’s pain, distress, anxiety or need. We search for the things we can do, however small, to give comfort and relieve suffering. We find time for patients, their families and carers, as well as those we work alongside. We do not wait to be asked, because we care.’

It was notable that in recent announcements from our new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, both expressed the need for compassion. Rishi Sunak said: ‘Now more than at any time in our history we will be judged by our capacity for compassion. Our ability to come through this won’t just be down to what government or businesses do but the individual acts of kindness that we show each other.’[2] Nicola Sturgeon also said ‘This crisis is reminding us just how fragile our world is. But it is also reminding us what really matters – health, love, solidarity. With compassion and kindness – and with the dedication and expertise of our NHS – we can and we will get through this.’[3] These speeches indicate that our political leaders recognise that compassion is a necessary response to the crisis that we must confront, collectively, as human beings.

This crisis has exposed many of the shortcomings of global capitalism with supply chains being unable to keep production processes afloat, layoffs in many sectors and widescale plummeting share prices on stock exchanges across the world. Campaigners have long observed the failures of our financial and corporate law systems that have resorted in practice to companies following a profit-oriented shareholder primacy mantra with seriously negative impacts including environmental harm, obscene wealth and income inequalities and human rights violations. Workers, in particular, have been viewed as cost inducing liabilities rather than valued for their contribution to the company’s success.

The health crisis we all face today highlights that the private problems and issues that we are each suffering, be it ill health and/or financial crises, arise out of public and political processes and choices including years of cuts to public health services and benefits, and wage stagnation. Each person’s sufferings arise as a result of problematic social and cultural conditions and profit-oriented corporate behaviours enabled by neo-liberal driven legal and regulatory structures that have allowed corporate leaders too much freedom at the expense of their workers. The government has had no choice but to provide a buffer for the workers by guaranteeing up to 80% of their salary while the virus requires a stay at home to allow for the social distancing required to slow the spread of the contagion and to alleviate pressure on the NHS. This is part of a package designed to shield the economy and help companies to survive the financial impact of the virus.

It is now incumbent upon corporate leaders to play their part in protecting their workers, customers and suppliers from the worst impacts. They too should understand the need for compassion and act accordingly. What would a compassionate leader do? A compassionate leader will accept that people are fundamentally relational and dependent on each other, and that human societies and communities require care to be a central feature. In this way, one leading writer on the feminist ethics of care identifies four stages of care, all of which are required: that humans pay attention to one another, take responsibility for one another, engage in physical processes of care giving, and respond to those who have received care.[4] The goal is to make our world better by caring about each other’s needs and to have the empathy necessary to see the suffering of others and a desire to alleviate that suffering in order to fulfil each other’s needs. A compassionate leader will recognise that the corporation is a collective entity that is beyond the aggregation of individuals and so will focus on the relational connections within the company and recognise that all those connected with the company have responsibility for one another.[5] Caring and nurturing are fundamental to these relationships.

Some company leaders have taken steps to protect their workers by providing them with full pay even if they have to stop working while the semi-lockdown is full swing. They are doing their best still to serve their customers as far as possible and some are offering benefits to NHS workers as a thank you for their courage and their care. A few such leaders will have taken such steps because they have been nudged or shamed into doing so. Nevertheless, this is a start and the government’s economic buffer helps company leaders to take these baby steps towards a more compassionate management. Much more needs to be done as we look to the future.

Many have suggested that this health crisis will change the way we live not just for six months or even just for a year. Some anticipate permanent changes. For corporate leaders, more permanent change towards compassionate organisations would require less hierarchal structures and greater democratisation. Control of the organization would be shared, with more open systems, less distinct boundaries and with a diversity of voices. Decision-making would be decentralized, allowing for participation of all employee ranks through communications which involve genuine listening and discussion around a willingness to understand each other’s positions, experiences and values. The culture would be characterised by an ethic of shared responsibility and caring for one another, rather than by threat and a winner takes all philosophy. Indeed, current distributional inequalities would also have to disappear, enabling everyone who contributes to the company’s success to be able to share in the gains. Indeed, the compassionate company is an organisation recognised as a collective community of human beings from which everyone should benefit. Financial security, mutual respect and corporate benevolence are required not just now, but also for the long term.  Our corporate leaders must step up to this challenge.[6]

[1] Chris Martenson, Peak Prosperity Youtube videos: ‘Here comes the boom! Stage’, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOIvGIukZhk

[2] Rishi Sunak, Press Briefing, 20 March 2020, at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-51969708

[3] Nicola Sturgeon, Nation Address, 20 March 2020, at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-51974969 .

[4] Tronto, J.C., Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an ethic of care (2003) New York Routledge

[5] Cohen, R., ‘Feminist Thought and Corporate Law: It’s Time to Find Our Way Up From the Bottom (Line)’ (1994) 2:1 Journal of Gender and the Law 1.

[6] For more detailed discussions around compassionate leadership and corporate governance see:

Villiers C, ‘Corporate Governance, Responsibility and Compassion: Why We Should Care’ in Boeger, N. and Villiers, C. (eds) Shaping the Corporate Landscape: Towards Corporate Reform and Enterprise Diversity (2018: Hart Publishing) and Villiers C., ‘Boardroom Culture: An Argument for Compassionate Leadership’ (2019) European Business Law Review, 30(2), 253-278.

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