Compassion is an exciting term in our modern leadership context. It seems too touchy-feely for the old school of thought, but these times call for radical movements toward people-centered leadership. And while competence is a worthy prerequisite for effective leadership, it shouldn't be the only one. Knowledge isn't quite as necessary as it once was. I'd argue that we've always relied on it a little bit too much.
Recently, we addressed curiosity's importance as a leadership value in the 21st century, but compassion could be its running mate, especially in seasons of crisis. Compassion compels us to make curiosity active by creating opportunities to grow with colleagues, friends, and family.
Maybe even more strongly, compassion requires action. Rasmus Hougaard makes such a distinction when contrasting empathy with compassion by stating, "when you pair empathy with action, the result is compassion. Compassionate leaders can get on the same level as their people and then ask, now what? They can acknowledge a problem and then use compassion to help define the next best steps." Compassion is an evolutionary step beyond empathy. Dr. Fred Johnson characterizes these differences in a slightly different way. He says, "Empathy jumps in the mud hole with a person and feels the same mud. Compassion helps a person out of the mud hole and sends them to the shower."
Practicing such compassion is necessary when creating a culture of high trust and positive accountability.
COMPASSION FOR OTHERS
It's easy to confuse compassionate behaviors with just being nice, letting things slide, or softening expectations. But this isn't compassionate leadership. When doubt or a lack of confidence seeps into the mind, whether personally or professionally, we falsely assume that avoiding problems may help soothe the tension. We also tend to catastrophize and think failure will result in the worst outcome. In reality, this isn't the case.
Compassion comes from leading people toward commitments. This commitment is another critical distinction between empathy and compassion. Compassion becomes the "how" of accountability. When a fear of failure is present, empathy seeks to feel the fear, whereas compassion looks toward action beyond fear. Compassion for the people around you begins with a heightened understanding and a willingness to practice a holistic, people-focused view of leadership.
The best compassionate leaders are honest, vulnerable, and transparent. They are willing to take action. They are intellectually humble and seek out the perspective of others. Compassion and humility have a lot in common, actually. In a sense, they cannot live without one another. They are willing to live in the tension and help their team move toward their best selves. The key to compassion is in the psychological safety of the workplace. It requires buy-in from the group and strong self-leadership.
COMPASSION FOR YOURSELF
Often, we’re our own worst critic. When we feel anxious or frustrated, we talk to ourselves more harshly than we’d find acceptable by anyone else. I blew that presentation. Everyone on my team has such strong technical skills; I can’t follow the conversation. My kiddo is going to be so mad at me for working late again. We wrongly assume that criticism will motivate us to do better. We become even more of a perfectionist than usual. Instead of talking to ourselves with self-compassion, we raise our standards for our behavior as a defense against our feelings of doubt, anxiety, or frustration. (Alice Boyes)
Finding room for self-compassion is difficult. Often, we're much harder on ourselves than anyone else would be. To adequately learn from failure, we all need a little bit of self-compassion because it shifts the burden of shame by making failure a catalyst for change rather than a paralysis agent. Self-compassion paves the way for meaningful personal growth.
When we act as judge, jury, and executioner for every action that we make, there is no room for collaboration. There is no room to hear the value that we bring to others. It isn't just about productivity; it is about opening the door to new perspectives, to see past the constraints of your mind. Inspiring teams to work together combines self-compassion with social compassion that fosters feedback that doesn't lead to shame and results in a profound change.
Compassion grows as it's used. It may be difficult at first; silencing your mental critic is a daily commitment, but I believe it gets easier over time. Eventually, your first response may start becoming less harsh and more graceful, not only toward others but toward yourself as well. This pursuit is worthwhile.