by Dr. Leah Tomkins
In this blog, I join those who advocate for the importance of leading with care. I also try to surface why the language and emotions of care often make people feel uncomfortable, and how this can make care seem irrelevant or unnecessary for leadership and leadership development. I draw on my recent consulting experience to suggest we need to be agile and imaginative to introduce the ethics of care into our organizational conversations. Above all, we should try to prioritize reality over rhetoric.
In March this year, my colleague Professor Richard Bolden (2022) posted a blog on this site emphasizing the need to “build back better” from the COVID-19 pandemic. He argued that our COVID-19 recovery strategies must include developing leaders who embody and inspire care and compassion. Only this kind of leadership would allow individuals, workplaces, and communities to heal from the unprecedented levels of physical and emotional exhaustion they have experienced over the past couple of years.
Those writing about caring leadership often draw on the modern care ethics movement for their inspiration. Care ethicists usually ground care in the domestic sphere and the parental relationship. Within this setting, care is conceived as attentiveness and concern in relationships and attachments where one person has the experience and the resources to attend to another person’s needs. Under the banner heading Starting at Home, Noddings (2002) argues that the healthiest homes provide a powerful blueprint for all our relationships and institutions in adult life, for:
“All good homes put an emphasis on shifting the locus of control from the stronger and more mature to the weaker or less mature, but the best homes retain and promote the idea of shared responsibility…When one person hurts another, the conversations and decisions that follow are aimed at restitution, at understanding what happened, how each party might have behaved differently, and how similar future events might be prevented.” (p. 228)
For care ethicists, care may begin at home, but this should not mean that care has to be kept at home. Leading care scholars see care as a broader social and institutional framework, i.e., as a general moral theory of obligation which is “equally accessible to both men and women and universally obligatory for all capable human beings” (Engster, 2007, p. 13). Tronto (2015) argues that care is the very foundation of a well-functioning society; because we all need, and hopefully receive, care at certain points in our lives (e.g., infancy, senility, illness, and misfortune), it is through care that we should approach the issue of democracy. She suggests that the power and promise of care ethics lies not in the perfection of an individual caring act (which is by definition “undemocratic”), but in our commitment to a world in which care-giving and care-receiving even out over the course of our lives.
Caring leadership has been linked to increased organizational commitment, heightened workplace self-esteem, and improved organizational performance.
Within the organizational world, caring leadership can be an extraordinarily powerful phenomenon. At its best, it triggers associations with closeness, belonging, and mattering to one another, and it seems to prioritize human beings over inhuman performance indicators. In empirical research on this topic, caring leadership has been linked to increased organizational commitment (Lilius et al., 2012), heightened workplace self-esteem (McAllister & Bigley, 2002), improved organizational performance (Cameron et al., 2003), and a strengthening of the moral foundations of transformational leadership (Simola et al., 2010). Arguably, care is even more powerful in its absence than its presence; if we sense that our leader simply does not care about us, we are often left feeling gravely disappointed, even betrayed (Gabriel, 2015; Tomkins, 2020).
So, why isn’t caring leadership on the curriculum of every leadership development program in every company and every business school? If care is so important for performance, belonging, recovery, and the institutions of a just society, why is it still a harder sell than the heroic transformational leadership (the bête noire for so many critical leadership scholars)? Why don’t we see more leaders whose success is attributed to the suggestion that they really care? Why, when we hear of leaders who do care, does this feel like care is a sort of apology or compensation, as in “Well, he may not be any good, but at least he cares”? Why, in short, is caring leadership often such a difficult conversation to initiate?
Whether consciously or unconsciously, care can trigger some difficult emotions. Some of these relate to our anxieties about dependency and loss of autonomy. Thus, care can be a problem for followers if it means that their space to maneuver, experiment, and learn from their own mistakes is curtailed by too much “caring” attention from their leader. Gabriel (2015) highlights similarities between the overly caring parent and the overly caring leader:
“As every caring parent knows, excessive caring can seriously inhibit the autonomy of followers, instilling dependence and inertia…At what point does caring turn into overprotection and cosseting?” (p. 329)
Caring leadership can involve an unhealthy dependency for leaders, too. In her ground-breaking work, In a Different Voice, Gilligan (1982) makes a distinction between feminine care and feminist care. The former equates moral goodness with self-sacrifice, i.e., with engaging with others solely on their terms and in the service solely of their needs. The latter sees all human lives as interconnected and interdependent within a social, political, and moral web of relationship. The risk for leaders who care is that one might lapse into self-sacrifice rather than nurturing — and being nurtured by — the radical intersubjectivity of all human lives.
Gilligan’s contrast between feminine care and feminist care suggests that the greatest barrier to caring leadership relates to gender. Our deep cultural associations between care and the maternal figure give care a highly female inflection. Care invokes both the female and the relational; whereas many of our implicit — and often unexamined — assumptions about what makes good leadership are basically male and individualist (even something like authentic leadership, which feels helpfully post-heroic at a surface level, but nevertheless triggers associations of splendid isolation and the significance of the individual self).
I myself have found the caring leadership conversation difficult to initiate in my work with practitioners. And I am not alone. Kim Scott’s bestselling book on Radical Candor has care and compassion at the heart of her model of successful organizational relations. She argues that leaders need “compassionate candor” in order to conduct the sometimes difficult conversations that lead to learning and development. She differentiates between this “compassionate candor” and a kind of “ruinous empathy” that can lead to the problems highlighted above. Scott’s “ruinous empathy” can result in organizations not addressing the things that need to be addressed for fear of hurting people’s feelings, and in leaders and others getting dragged into exhausting and unproductive relationship dynamics. When asked why she called her book Radical Candor, not Compassionate Candor (which it is arguably really about), Scott (2019) replied:
“Part of the reason I didn’t call this book Compassionate Candor is that I’m a woman and I didn’t want to seem too ‘soft’” (p. xv)
If we want to nurture a world of caring leaders, we need to acknowledge some of the associations of care that can make these conversations difficult. In my forthcoming keynote for the 12th Developing Leadership Capacity Conference, I will be sharing a case study from my recent consulting experience from which I have learned a great deal about how to work with the difficult issues that care throws up for our organizational relations. I will be suggesting that if the rhetoric of care isn’t helping us, we might focus on the reality of care instead. I do hope you will join me!
Interested in hearing more about these ideas? On 12-13 July 2022, the Bristol Leadership and Change Centre will be hosting the 12th Developing Leadership Capacity Conference, with a theme of “Leading to Care – Foregrounding Health and Well-being in Leadership Development and Education.” Keynote speakers include myself, Leah Tomkins, along with Michael West and Tracie Jolliff. The event will be run online with no registration fee in order to enable wide attendance. Further details here.
Bolden, R. (2022). Build Back Better… With Care and Compassion. Leadership for the Greater Good: Global Thought Leaders Explore Today’s Challenges. International Leadership Association. https://ilaglobalnetwork.org/build-back-better-with-care-and-compassion/
Cameron, K.S., Dutton, J.E. & Quinn, R.E. (2003). Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline. Berrett-Koehler.
Engster, D. (2007). The Heart of Justice: Care Ethics and Political Theory. Oxford University Press.
Gabriel, Y. (2015). The Caring Leader: What Followers Expect of Their Leaders and Why? Leadership, 11(3), 316-334.
Gilligan, C. (1982). In a Different Voice. Harvard University Press.
Lilius, J.M., Kanov, J., Dutton, J.E., Worline, M.C. & Maitlis, S. (2012). Compassion Revealed. In K.S. Cameron & G.M. Spreitzer (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship pp. 273-288. Oxford University Press.
McAllister, D.J. & Bigley, G.A. (2002). Work Context and the Definition of Self: How Organizational Care Influences Organization-Based Self-Esteem. Academy of Management Journal, 45(5), 894-904.
Noddings, N. (2002). Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy. University of California Press.
Scott, K. (2019). Radical Candor: How to Get What You Want by Saying What You Mean (2nd edition). St Martins Press.
Simola, S.K., Barling, J. & Turner, N. (2010). Transformational Leadership and Leader Moral Orientation: Contrasting an Ethic of Justice and an Ethic of Care. The Leadership Quarterly, 21(1), 179-188.
Tomkins, L. (2020). Where Is Boris Johnson? When and Why It Matters That Leaders Show Up in a Crisis. Leadership 16(3), 331-342.
Tronto, J.C. (2015). Who Cares? How to Reshape a Democratic Politics. Cornell University Press.
Dr. Leah Tomkins is an independent writer, researcher and consultant. Current academic affiliations include Visiting Fellow at the University of Oxford (The Bodleian) and Visiting Professor at the University of the West of England (UWE). A key focus of her work is bridging the gap between academia and practice, drawing on her in-depth experience of leadership – warts and all – including in senior roles at Accenture, KPMG, the UK Cabinet Office and London’s Metropolitan Police Service. She is Associate Editor and inaugural Social Media Editor for the SAGE journal Leadership.