Compassion is one of those traits that leaders often like to talk about more than they practise – but are we missing out when compassion isn’t at the heart of leadership?
A growing body of research strongly suggests that leaders who coach with compassion are able to build teams that are engaged, motivated, committed, and creative when it comes to the roles they perform.
On the other hand, coaching for compliance (i.e. telling people what to do “because it’s your job!”) leads to disengagement, minimal levels of engagement, and people planning their exit strategy for the nearest opportunity that presents itself.
So, what is compassion – and what, exactly, is its role in leadership? Compassion focuses on connecting with others in a way that understands their desires and dreams, obstacles and challenges.
As a compassionate leader, it’s our job to tune into the experiences of our employees and provide beneficial support and guidance wherever we can.
That said, it’s important to note that compassion is not about being nice or blindly agreeing to people’s requests. It’s about helping people in a way that has their growth and development at heart. A compassionate leader is able to use their judgement in how they help their team, and they recognise what purpose it serves.
What the research says
According to research by Prof Shimul Melwani of the University of North Carolina, Kenan-Flagler Business School, compassionate leaders increase levels of engagement within the organisation and they have more people willing to follow them.
In his latest book, Helping People Change, Prof Richard Boyatzis of Case Western Reserve University talks about the importance of compassion in leadership in helping people to realise their personal visions and unlock their potential.
He argues that, in many cases, leaders try to help others by focusing on how to improve their weaknesses. As it turns out, this approach is more demotivating than we realise. Instead, leaders should understand what drives their people and help them to shape and create a sense of purpose within the organisation that will truly motivate them.
Prof Boyatzis writes, “A compelling personal vision transforms purpose into action, makes order out of chaos, instils confidence and rivers us to fulfil a desired future.” In leading with compassion, he adds that leaders should ask questions that inspire gratitude and curiosity in others, in order to fuel their desire to learn and change for the better.
Listen to this podcast: Compassionate Leadership, an Essential Ingredient in the VUCA World
What the Dalai Lama says
One of the most iconic leaders in the world today travels the globe, meeting with world and business leaders to develop compassion within their leadership style. The Dalai Lama is so convinced of the power of compassion that he believes the business world (and indeed the rest of the world) would find it difficult to survive without it.
Of compassion, he says, “When we are motivated by compassion and wisdom, the results of our actions benefit everyone, not just our individual selves or some immediate convenience.”
The words of one of the most compassionate leaders in the world echoes what the research has to say: when we lead with compassion, everyone benefits, and everyone is inspired to work towards a collective vision.
So, how can we incorporate compassion into our leadership style? Here are three lessons I have found to be helpful in connecting with and understanding others:
1. Within every difficulty is the opportunity for understanding
Leadership isn’t easy. There are a hundred things to contend with each day, and sometimes you won’t see eye-to-eye with a colleague or your team. While the temptation is to stand your ground and dig your heels in further, it only serves to prolong the tension and cause more problems for all involved.
Instead of the usual stand-off, the compassionate leader will ask, “OK, what’s happening here? Why have we reached this point? Where is the common ground, and how can we work together to find a solution?”
Remember, often, it’s the most challenging moments that present the best opportunities for understanding each other.
2. Recognise the role of knowledge in developing our hearts
It’s important that we develop our minds – our culture is obsessed with learning, with going to good schools and achieving top grades. However, knowledge that’s correctly reflected upon can lead us to gain wisdom, resulting in a greater ability to open up to and help others.
As the Dalai Lama puts it, “Even though our society does not emphasise this, the most important use of knowledge and education is to help us understand the importance of engaging in more wholesome actions and bringing about discipline within our minds. The proper utilisation of our intelligence and knowledge is to effect changes from within to develop a good heart.”
3. As the leader, it’s all about you
How we are treated is often a reflection of how we conduct ourselves and interact with others. In religious teachings, we are told about The Golden Rule: to treat others as we would like them to treat us.
In leadership, it’s easy to lose sight of how we project ourselves and come across. One of the most effective ways to check ourselves it to regularly ask, “Am I being the leader that I would like to follow myself?”
If there’s room for improvement to be made, try writing down what you think you should work on. Or, better still, get some constructive feedback from those who you feel would be honest and objective.