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Compassionate Leaders

Most leaders are still trained to lead with their heads, not their hearts. They’re conditioned to put business before caring. The public profile of a good leader, for instance, routinely includes adjectives like tough, decisive, hard-nosed, quick-to-judge, results-driven.Let’s face it, there hasn’t been a lot of room for compassion in most workplaces, but it is changing. Emotional intelligence is prized, and it includes compassion. This more emotionally intelligent, empathetic and caring style of leadership provokes questions like: What is compassion? What does it mean to be a compassionate leader? How can I inspire others to create a more caring culture? Will being more compassionate mean going soft, diluting hard decisions and watering down a solid focus on outcomes?A careful look at compassionate will prove it to be a core characteristic of leaders who are effective and lasting. Let’s start with defining compassion.Thupten Jinpa, a scholar who often teaches compassion skills, defines compassion as having three components:

  • A cognitive component: “I understand you”

  • An affective component: “I feel for you”

  • A motivational component: “I want to help you”

The most compelling benefit of compassion in the context of work is that compassion creates highly effective leaders. To become a highly effective leader, you need to go through an important transformation. Bill George, the widely respected former CEO of Medtronic puts it most succinctly, calling it going from “I” to “We.” It is the most important process leaders go through in becoming authentic. How else can they unleash the power of their organizations unless they motivate people to reach their full potential? If our supporters are merely following our lead, then their efforts are limited to our vision and our directions. Only when leaders stop focusing on their personal ego needs are they able to develop other leaders.Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. A lack of it is devastating. Leadership gurus describe the toxic state of many workplaces, often as a result of their leaders’ influence. Leaders in business schools, organizations, and in politics are taught to lead with their heads and not with their hearts.What does a compassionate leader look like? Bill Cropper in THE CHANGE FORUM gives some indicators.Compassionate leaders are ‘in-tune’ feeling-wise. What they say and do resonates – and they always have the time to engage in connective conversations with others.Compassionate leaders manage their moods. They know feelings are catchy and they use positive emotions to inspire, not infect others with negative, de-motivating feelings.Compassionate leaders put people before procedures. They’re willing to set aside or change outmoded or emotionally dissonant rules and regulations for the greater good.Compassionate leaders show sincere, heartfelt consideration. They genuinely care for the well-being of others and have a humane side that puts other’s needs before theirs.Compassionate leaders are mindful. They’re awake to their own feelings, aware of the impact they have on others and attentive and sympathetic to the needs of others.Compassionate leaders are hopeful. They move others passionately and purposefully with a shared vision that plays on the positive, energizing and renewing power of hope.Compassionate leaders have the courage to say what they feel. They convey feelings, fears, even doubts, authentically, which builds trust and makes them approachable. They share this about THEMSELVES, primarily—not about other people.Compassionate leaders engage others in frank, open dialogue. They speak candidly with truth, humility, respect and conviction – and make it safe for others to do so too.Compassionate leaders are connective and receptive. They read what other people are thinking and feeling. This empathetic connection keeps them in touch and in tune.Compassionate leaders take positive and affirming action. They act out compassion. They don't just pay lip service to a cause, they make a promise, act on it and keep it.Of course, if you are not already leading with compassion, this may seem like an enormous task. Why should you make the effort?First of all, it will make the leader himself a more satisfied and happy person. Compassion and empathy make us feel good about ourselves, and build successful relationships with others. Our personal stress level will go down, and our fulfillment level will go up.Second, it will enhance our organizations in ways almost nothing else will. Compassion and empathy are lynchpins for good leadership. When leaders regularly demonstrate concern for people experiencing difficulties and then act upon the concern to help and support, they foster engagement, loyalty, and self-sacrifice on the part of the employees. William Baker and Michael O’Malley, authors of Leading with Kindness argue that the practice of kindness in corporations has a positive impact on bottom line business results.While a significant number of leaders still try the command and control or “carrot-and-stick” approach to management, the massive amount of research says compassion is the effective method. Constructive feedback, which is usually critical, rarely helps anyone, and certainly rarely improves employee performance on the job. In his article in the Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz, President and CEO of the Energy Project, and author of Be Excellent At Anything, says that when we hear the phrase from someone, "Would you mind if I give you some feedback?" what that actually means to most of us is "Would you mind if I gave you some negative feedback?," wrapped up in the guise of constructive criticism, whether you want it or not. An understanding, empathetic and compassionate relationship consistently given will do much more than the evaluative, “raising the bar” conversation.So much of our current political and business landscape is characterized by incivility, hurtful language and behavior by too many leaders. There’s not much compassion. Get it right, or get fired. Get it right, or you will be humiliated right back. Little wonder how our society and institutions have become toxic places for many people, with damaging results. There is overwhelming evidence that despite what appears to be the character of the times, people want and need their leaders to be empathetic and compassionate. The success and well-being of the treasure you lead may be determined by it. Daniel Goldman, the emotional intelligence expert, says your own success will depend on it, too.

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