Life-affirming leadership: Developing the skills of insight and compassion

We need leaders who put service over self, who can be steadfast in crises and failures, who want to stay present and make a difference to the people, situations and causes they care about.

Margaret Wheatley (‘Who do we choose to be?’)

When Collective Leadership for Scotland invited a group of people from across public service to join the Life Affirming Leadership programme in early March 2020, little did we know how much the world would change within weeks of being together, nor how true Margaret’s words above would be. 

Even before the current COVID crisis, leaders were confronted with complex change in the internal and external environment. In response to these increasing pressures, the majority of which are beyond any individual’s control, good leaders face both personal and organisational challenges.  As a result, they can feel exhausted, overwhelmed and, at times, faced with a sense of meaninglessness. In order to be effective in today’s increasingly complex and uncertain world, there is a clear recognition that leaders need a new set of skills.

As a follow up to our Perseverance event in Oct 2019, Collective Leadership for Scotland invited Margaret to Scotland to train a cohort of 30 system leaders in her approach to developing the skills to lead with insight and compassion.

Margaret (Meg) is a world-renowned leadership expert. She writes, speaks, and teaches globally about how we can accomplish our work, sustain our relationships, and willingly step forward to serve in these turbulent times to do good work maintaining the best of humanity – treating people with compassion and dignity. Meg refers to these leaders as “Warriors for the Human Spirit”: people “dedicated to serving people without adding to the aggression and fear of this time” and train in order to:

  • Refrain from using fear and aggression to accomplish our ends
  • Maintain a stable mind* even in situations of contention and conflict
  • Use direct perception to see more clearly so we may act more wisely
  • Stay aware of our biases, judgments, and triggers in order to diminish their influence on us
  • Focus our efforts on the work that needs doing, not the work we want to do
  • Endeavour to create Islands of Sanity (see below for Kirsty’s interpretation of this) wherever possible
  • Maintain a keen sense of humour
  • Rely on moments of grace and joy
  • Offer and receive support from the community of Persevering Leaders

*meaning how being contemplative and reflective allows us to attend to our minds.

We invited three participants of the programme, Penelope, Colin and Kirsty to share their reflections on what they had learned and how it has influenced their actions during the COVID crisis. This blog encompasses excerpts from Penelope, Colin and Kirsty’s stories which form part of our growing Collective Leadership Storybook.  You can read them in full on our Storybook-webpage.


Penelope Cooper is Chief Executive of the Scottish Public Pensions Agency:

“So how did a week spent with an amazing woman, supported by a great team prepare me and a bunch of strangers for the mayhem that I returned to? The job I returned to was managing my organisation through an unprecedented crisis a fortnight before Covid 19 lock down became the reality, ensuring the safety of my colleagues and the continued service to our customers.

The focus on Leadership as Service had changed my way of thinking and prepared me really well for this situation.  I approached the task from a different stand point. Rather than thinking I had to have all the answers, I was able to support my team in allowing them to develop these together. I was more able to take a longer perspective, and to appreciate the contribution everyone had to make. I am certain that I had a more motivated team who delivered a better overall response as a result.

I was able to contribute better as I didn’t feel the weight of having to come up with all the answers. This was a difficult change for some in the organisation as they were used to the previous way of working, reliant on the top for the decisions. Instead they got the overall direction and expectation that they could exercise their judgement. This needed some support and is still a work in progress for some.

The question I found myself asking repeatedly was ‘Is this kind?’. As a guiding principle from the programme, this served me very well. For example, when considering how we would expect colleagues to work from home, asking that question helped formulate our response with respect to working patterns, equipment and expectations.

In all the stress of the lock down and response, the meditation and self-care techniques I am now practicing have really helped me to maintain my resilience and cope with the difficult situation we are living through, including the grief at the immense loss of life and ways of living.  Overall I would say that this has changed me as a person and a leader and I consider myself to have been fortunate to have had the experience when I did.”


Colin Convery works in the National Safer Communities Division, Police Scotland:

“Through a series of interactive and theoretical inputs/discussions I became aware of the importance of self-regulation and the fundamental need to have a much greater appreciation of other people, where they were approaching challenges from, their intentions and to do so while NOT judging. I gained an understanding that being curious, compassionate and willing to ‘have a go’, or more importantly allow others to have a go, is vitally important to overall success.

I appreciated after the week’s activities that I was not alone, unique, or indeed a failure because I had limited control over things. That is life and it is what we must accept as a starting point.  Things I always looked for from family, friends, colleagues were not necessarily going to come along e.g. praise & applause, but again I was not the only one with the same desire to know I was doing the right thing. We all feel the same – we are just not good at sharing the reality.

So, has it changed me and my approach?…… absolutely. I would never have contemplated researching, let alone practicing, mindfulness. How I wish I had done so much earlier in my career. This has been the single most significant training I have engaged on in 20 years, it provided me a lot reassurances that I was not unique in my thoughts and also gave me some invaluable tools to help me cope with the pressures of day to day life, to lead people both at home and in the workplace by being friendly to myself, doing the right thing and appreciating people, their feelings and their beliefs & perspectives. Putting the theory to practice has been very beneficial.  I genuinely wish I had been exposed to the principles many years ago and would advocate them to colleagues, especially those working in a multi-agency or cross-sector environment.”


Kirsty Lewin:

“For me, the essence of the programme seems to be that we behave with decency and dignity in the service of others. So in lockdown, I have taken the opportunity to observe myself.  Warriors, we were told, don’t expect applause. Expecting applause and not getting it results in anger, disappointment and pain.  Focussing on the work, or the service that needs done, without needing praise, is a selfless act. And I have found that I am generally able to do it with my voluntary work. Staying in the background, and getting pleasure from something I’ve worked on with other people, turns out to be enough for my self-esteem.

Warriors create islands of sanity. We can all imagine these. Swinging in a hammock under a Coconut Palm or a Caledonian Pine. Everybody respects everybody else. Compassion and trust are the cocktails of the day. Warriors put the qualities of relationships at the heart of their leadership on these islands. And learning and reflection are the conditions required for our survival.

I had struggled to see the relevance for my own situation at first. In my previous paid work, yes. But my voluntary effort would surely be too small for island creation? And, on top of that, I know I’m not a particularly calming person. Island building would be too hard for me.

In the COVID19 crisis my local fellow activists are juggling home schooling, working from home, and enduring the mental fatigue of lockdown. The people that we are working with (the Council, stakeholders, other communities) have the same challenges. So I have attempted to create an island of sanity. Sometimes I get side tracked. I forget about the coconut oil and pick up a jack hammer (for this I apologise). But then I take my seat and get back to the serious business of focusing on the quality of the relationships, rather than the transactional elements. Not just between ourselves in our small clan, but between all the people that are working with on the projects we’d like delivered.

We can all create islands of sanity.

Hope, according to Meg, is an addiction we cling to. As I understand it, she asks us to replace hope with being present. Being present prevents us from toppling into despair when our hopes are not realised. I was resistant at first. But I was also relieved. We all know it’s the hope that kills you.

Working in climate change involved so much hope for me. Hope that it would be prioritised across the globe. Hope that every organisation would do the right thing. Hope that if I could just be better at my job I’d get better results. All those hopes dashed, despite the efforts and successes of so many, by the interminable height climbed by those lines on the graphs. Letting that hope go feels lighter. On our island we might use the word hope. Hope your folks are okay. Hope it works out for you. But we won’t be hopeful, we’ll be present instead.

Now I watch and listen to other leaders with my warrior hat by my side.  Senior politicians leading their countries with humanity and integrity. Chief executives working with their staff on the collective transformation of their businesses as they adapt to pandemic life. Team leaders providing a space each morning for colleagues to express their fears and concerns. Women keeping calm order in panicky supermarket queues. Bus drivers reassuring anxious passengers; and cleaners, everywhere, keeping the show on the road.

We can all be leaders now.”

Penelope, Colin and Kirsty all refer to the principles they learned to put into practice from the programme.  These are:

  • First, be friendly to yourself
  • Don’t fix, don’t avoid, just be present
  • Don’t expect applause
  • Abandon any hope of fruition (i.e. “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worth doing, no matter how it turns out” Václav Havel
  • Come back again and again
  • Everything has a beginning, a middle and an end
  • Nothing means what you think it means
  • Be grateful to everyone
  • Savour the uncertainty
  • Maintain your sense of humour
  • Is it kind?

What do these mean to you and how might they be useful in your daily practice and interactions?

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