Compassion isn’t a trait that has been traditionally associated with effective leadership in the world of work. After all, it isn’t being gentle, nice and compassionate that really gets things done in business, or that turns humble start-ups into industry-leading organisations, is it?
Many of us are so accustomed to the idea that the most effective leaders are tough and firm, that we mistakenly think that to be compassionate towards others is to ‘go soft’ or be a pushover when it comes to leadership. In fact, research found that 80% of leaders misunderstand compassion for “being nice, or soft”, or “loving everyone”. In reality, leading with compassion can be quite the opposite – it is those leaders who have led with compassion that have been the real driving force behind some of the most progressive and forward-thinking brands in the world. In fact, as this Forbes article explains, ‘compassion very often requires great courage and strength.’
Compassionate leaders understand that it is, in fact, compassion that ultimately fuels innovation and creativity, and it therefore guides everything they do. Take Microsoft, for example. Their CEO Satya Nadella, has described empathy as being “at the centre of the agenda for innovation” at the company. It therefore could be argued that compassion has never been a more important component of leadership than it is in today’s world of work. It is compassion that can really drive our organisations forward.
So, as leaders, is it time we redefined in our own minds what we mean by compassionate leadership? I think so.
What is compassionate leadership, anyway?
Before we take a look at what ‘compassionate leadership’ is, lets firstly explore what ‘compassion’ is. The Oxford English Dictionary define it as, ‘…the feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it…” So, in a nutshell, compassion is about appreciating the struggles of others, and feeling compelled to help them.
So, now we know what compassion is – what about compassionate leadership? Among the observers to share their definitions is LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, who has said it is “about taking the time to put yourself in another person’s shoes.” Meanwhile, compassionate leadership has been described by the Harvard Business Review, as “…the intent to contribute to the happiness and wellbeing of others. A compassionate leader has a genuine interest in seeing their people not just perform and increase profits, but thrive.”
What are the traits of a compassionate leader?
So, we’ve established that being a compassionate leader isn’t about being ‘soft’. Instead, it’s about possessing the skills, vision and dedication necessary to build a supportive and collaborative culture, in which all employees thrive in the long-term. It’s about putting the development of your people at the heart of everything that you do.
The typical compassionate leader, then, possesses such qualities as:
- Self-awareness and self-compassion: In the words of LinkedIn’s CEO, Jeff Weiner, you need to “be a spectator to your own thoughts, especially when you become emotional.” A compassionate leader is one that is aware of their own strengths and weaknesses (and invites feedback on them) and how they are perceived by others. Compassionate leaders also have compassion for themselves, which is an important element. As Uvinie Lubecki, CEO of Leading Through Connection explains: “The lens through which we see ourselves is the same lens through which we see others. If we can extend kindness toward ourselves as leaders and recognize when things get tough that we’re doing our best and that our intention is to be of benefit, this can be a powerful practice.”
- The ability to put themselves in the shoes of others: Such leaders are also able to put themselves in the shoes of the people that they lead, which enables them to better understand the impact of their own actions and behaviours on their team, and thus do what they can to help alleviate any issues for the good of the team and wider organisation. Compassionate leaders also know that they’re more likely to get better results from individual team members if they can understand what truly drives each of them to achieve – instead of merely ruling with threats or fear, or even giving them a financial incentive (a compassionate leader realises that while these solutions may seem superficially attractive, they often only bring short-lived boosts in employee performance). They also understand and appreciate the unique and personal emotional barriers each team member is contending with, helping them to overcome any defeatist thoughts, as Campbell explains. Ultimately, a leader who leads with compassion appreciates that the more time and effort they can put into understanding their people, the more likely they are to be able to put those people on a path to success.
- They see themselves as the conductor of an orchestra: Compassionate leaders understand that different people do things differently – and that there isn’t just one way to do something well. They also know that they don’t know everything, which opens doors to creativity and innovative thinking within their teams. As Psychologist Sherrie Campbell explains in this Entrepreneur article: “When leaders operate as if they know everything, they harden themselves to new ideas by stubbornly assuming they have nothing more to learn to be effective in their role.” Compassionate leaders, don’t adopt a ‘my way or the highway’ mentality. Instead, they give every member of their team the support that they require to do their work in a way that plays to their strengths. So, compassionate leaders tend to think of themselves as the conductor of the orchestra, working to help each member of their team thrive, and overcome any challenges they face.
- The ability to make employees feel accountable for their work, providing feedback along the way: As I said earlier, compassionate leadership isn’t about being soft or a pushover. It’s about giving your team members advice to help them improve, even if it’s advice that they may not want to hear or is difficult to deliver. Compassionate leaders are good at identifying what feedback needs to be provided, and then delivering it in a way that is constructive and impactful – even if it is bad feedback – including being specific and giving examples. Being a compassionate leader is about giving feedback that opens the recipient’s eyes up to the changes they need to make in order to improve. Importantly, a compassionate leader will also always explain to their employees that they are there to help them to get better and to give them the resources they need to succeed, whilst being clear on what improvements they expect to see. Ultimately, the most effective leaders know that it’s perfectly possible to be compassionate, while also genuinely holding their team members to account for their performance, whilst making them feel that they are an important part of the team. DeLevie gave the example in her TEDx Talk of a performance review in which a compassionate leader might say to an underperforming employee: “Listen, we’ve had this conversation six or seven times. I’ve been very clear with you that these three things need to change. I’m going to be super-specific one more time… what you’re doing is limiting the rest of the team’s ability to do their job.” So, compassionate leaders know, that by holding their people accountable for their work, and giving feedback along the way, they are ultimately helping them thrive in the long-term, by pushing them out of their comfort zone and taking personal ownership for their work.
So, we can deduce, then, that being a compassionate leader is far from being soft, as many presume. It is in fact, about doing all you can to help those in your team thrive and, ultimately, to reach their full potential. By leading with more compassion, you will lay the foundations for more creativity, problem solving and innovation to grow in your organisation – which are all key to succeeding, both in today’s, but also in tomorrow’s world of work.
If you’ve come to the end of this blog, and after some self-reflection, have realised that you could be more compassionate in the way you lead your people, then the good news is that this style of leadership can be learned. In fact, Harvard Business Review define compassion as an action, something we can all make a habit of. So, stay tuned for my next blog in which I will share eight tips to help you become a more compassionate leader.