Gentleness: an underrated quality in effective leadership

What an inspirational and thoughtful piece!

Dean Royles, strategic workforce advisor at Skills for Health and co-author of ‘An Introduction to Human Resource Management,’ returns to write for NHE for his blog series on effective leadership.

“It is not in your top three, Dean…” The difficulty in asking for feedback is that sometimes, occasionally, people will be honest with you. It can be humbling and troubling in equal measure. It’s something I need to do more of.

This is the second in a series about the most underrated aspects of effective leadership. Last time was about ‘patience’ and transformational change. This piece is about gentleness, a hugely underrated leadership quality. I thought it important to do some research, so I asked a few people whether they thought it was a quality I had. Not in my top three! And it hurts.

Now, I accept that when people think of effective leadership, they don’t often mention gentleness. Ideas like bold, courageous, and brave more easily spring to mind. People talk about the importance of being brave, to stand out and to follow a courageous vision… That’s what real leadership takes, people say. Even though we are constantly told that the age of the ‘hero’ leader has passed – is obsolete and is no more – we still tend to use adjectives to describe effective leadership that came from that era of the brave, charismatic leader.

And yet, when we think of some of the world’s most influential leaders – people like Gandhi, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Jesus, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rosa Parkes, Stephen Hawking, John Sentamu – gentleness is probably the word that first springs to mind. The problem, it seems, is that gentleness as an attribute is all too often mistaken for weakness. These leaders demonstrated that is categorically not the case: gentleness can be bold, can be determined, can be courageous, and can be forthright – but it is never harsh, never condescending, never aggressive.

In the NHS, when we are able to stop defining leadership through the lens of organisational hierarchy, when we see leadership as something than comes from every seat in the organisation, we can of course see that quality of gentleness abounding in organisations.

We see it in the way that a porter speaks reassuringly to elderly patients as they are transferred in a wheelchair; in the way a nurse goes out of their way to sit and hold the hand of a dying patient; when a childcare support worker comforts a crying child; when a physiotherapist or an OT supports someone reassuringly and persistently through recovery.

We see it when staff organise charity cake sales, or collections for food banks; or when a community nurse makes an additional call to see patients they were worried about earlier in the day. And we see it in the way our scientists, consultants and research nurses forgo private sector reward so they can work on that breakthrough treatment because they know how it will change lives. Gentleness, visible every single day in every single organisation.

These are the stories that echo around our organisations, the stories that bring a tear to the eye and, yes, these are all leadership stories. These are the people that influence others to behave differently to how they otherwise would. They may not hold senior positions in the hierarchy, but these are the people others want to emulate, that they want to be like.

We have all worked for people where we see that gentleness at work too. These are the people that have supported us and been consistent in how they treat others with care, compassion and gentleness.

These are the leaders in our organisation that inspire people to go the extra mile, to put in that discretionary effort.

It is leadership, in action, every day.

When you think of how you would like to be remembered as a leader, words like visionary, bold and courageous are all well and good, but the people we work with will remember the leaders who were kind and gentle. It may not be in my top three at present, but I’m determined to work harder at being gentle.

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