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Culture of Care – or the purple line of leadership

by Christoph Hensch

Purple line leadership means managing our well-being, individually and collectively, together.

It is now 25 years ago, when I experienced the most traumatic event in my life so far. I have written about it many times, on this platform and elsewhere. It has led me to contemplate a number of questions, including one I like to explore today. I have been contemplating the concept of a “culture of care” to be developed in the humanitarian sector – to care, not just for populations affected by conflict and disaster, but also to care for each other, for volunteers, colleagues and staff in humanitarian sector organisations.


Care” is sometimes defined as having ‘feelings like concern, responsibility or love for someone or something’.

Often care seems to be the last thing we remember to do, when we are under the pressures of writing reports and meeting all kinds of deadlines. Often this is rooted in the way we manage people. Many modern organisations are organised as matrix organisations, where people report to multiple managers, likely a line manager and a project or technical report. We know that leading people and management is the largest source of stress. In such an environment, can we truly expect your manager also to be there as your caring emotional support? At the minimum, your manager should not be a cause of additional stress, but what else can and should we expect …?


I have been asking myself this question for a long time. When, 25 years ago, I experienced that security incident, I was in a management position as well, as the local Head of Office at that hospital project. My line management responsibilities did end rather abruptly on that day of the incident. Yet I always had this undefined feeling that I had some continuing responsibility towards my team. I spent a lot of my efforts and time on my own ‘self-care’ and healing, but quite little on questions of wellbeing of my (former) staff. This felt quite egotistical at times, and I felt that I never quite lived up to expectations and I have never quite stopped wondering what my responsibilities should have been.


Today, working on developing the concept of a ‘culture of care’ is one approach to building caring work environments.

How could such concepts be introduced into complex, large and modern organisations? The organisational structure of my current employer is also built on “matrix management”, where one has two or more managerial accountability relationships. Typically, we call it the ‘red-line’ for the operational hierarchical reporting line, and the ‘blue-line’ for technical specialist and project reporting.


In matrix organisations, as in any other organisation, I would like to propose that we add another relationship to the mix: A ‘purple-line leadership’. The purpose of such a connection is to have a trusted peer that can support you in times of need, someone you can confide in without having to expect negative reactions and someone who is familiar with your work environment and the challenges you are facing.


Such a relationship would have quite unique and different properties from conventional management:


  • The connection is not one of reporting, but rather one of communication, trust and mutual support

  • Purple leaders are defined by qualities of ethics, care, empathy, non-judgment, humanity and trust

  • The two people linked by a ‘purple line’ would not necessarily be defined by a hierarchical organigram, a rank and other properties like titles, position on a pay scale or contractual status.

  • In fact, instead of a hierarchical design, it would be more of a network of people who are close to each other, and trusted.

  • A purple line leader is not appointed by the organisation. On the contrary, we chose, individually and together, who are our trusted purple line connections.

  • People draw their leadership qualities from within. We are all leaders in this regard – no matter of any external attributes of power we either claim or have been bestowed with.

  • Neither would such a connection be one-directional. All of us are sometimes in need of emotional support, and sometimes we feel strong enough to support others. There will likely be a swing between sometimes receiving and sometimes giving … An ever-changing balance of how much care we can give and how much care we need in any given moment.

  • In most cases, purple leaders are hidden leaders who nurture and foster a culture of care at a work place, but also far beyond its boundaries

Such ‘purple line’ relationships should be officially recognized. The ability to support others should be a professional functional competency and time allocated to support a co-worker and colleague should be part of a job description.

Such purposeful leadership actions can be small and local, from putting up and maintaining flowers at the office, bringing chocolates to the coffee break, over having an open ear for your colleagues and spending a little time supporting your peers. They also reach to monumental undertakings of organising remembrance events, building memorials for those colleagues we have lost at work and/or considering questions of ethics, care and humanity when drafting and implementing strategies, processes and procedures.


I believe, many people do that already. But how can we safeguard such a culture and expand it, especially when the going gets tough, when we are under pressure of deadlines and budget cuts?


What are your purple line relationships at work? Who have you elected to be your purple leader?

I am still working on this myself. It seems that most of the individuals who might have needed my support 25 years ago, have drifted apart and found their own ways of coping and healing. Yet, by co-founding and building up CoCreate Humanity I would like to help current and future generations of humanitarians to find a supporting environment that helps them dealing with the challenges of humanitarian work.


One concrete example is remembrance. Recently, I wrote about remembrance. Remembrance belongs to a culture of care. If you are living in the Geneva area, and or are passing though on 14 December 2021, then please join us for Remembrance Day concert. All relevant information on the event – the music, the performers and how to get a ticket can be found on this link.



Guard well within yourself that treasure, kindness.
Know how to give without hesitation, how to lose without regret, how to acquire without meanness.
- George Sand (Armandine Dudevant) (1804 - 1876) French authoress

This article is also published on LinkedIn, here.

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