I wish there was another word for compassion. Something that sounded more dynamic, tougher, something with an edge. When I talk to leaders about the importance of developing compassion, I can see their eyes begin to glaze over, or they’ll raise objections about how it would leave them open to being ill-treated or walked over. They would surely be taken advantage of, or seen as weak and ineffectual.
They could not be more wrong of course. This quality we call compassion is one of the most difficult traits to develop. To be a compassionate leader requires a range of skills and a high degree of emotional intelligence and self-awareness. It is not for the faint-hearted.
You see we all have within us the capacity to take care of our own (in whatever way we define “own”). A “shoot first and ask questions later” approach can lie within us all, and it doesn’t take much to trigger it. There is a certain security to be found in an “us and them” viewpoint.
But compassionate leadership is not about that kind of security. It is about turning away from knee jerk reactions and posturing. It is about demonstrating and instilling courage, rather than fear.
Compassionate leaders, far from being weak, are actually strong enough to rise above these base instincts. They do not shy away from difficulty, nor are they indecisive. Instead they know hard decisions need to be made and make them, with integrity and determination.
When they speak, we listen, not because they shout the loudest but because they speak with the greatest impact. They are strong enough to show their vulnerability, and to take swift action when it is needed. They lead not through bullying and fear-mongering but through honesty, humanity and compassion. And we follow them.
We are currently presented with the two ends of this leadership continuum in the form of US President Donald Trump and New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. While the former wants to spend billions and billions of dollars on a wall to keep “foreigners” out, Ardern’s use of “they are us” did away with division and separation. Her compassion did nothing to impair her decisiveness in developing new laws, in fact it spurred it on. Her gentle tone and softly spoken words underlined her determination unite her country in a time of tremendous difficulty, and call to account those who threatened it.
For those of us who lead on far smaller stages, and without the spotlight of the world media, how can we use compassionate leadership to inspire our teams and organisations?
Fortunately, compassion is a developable trait. There is not a set amount of compassion that you are born with, and that you then use up through life. We can learn to become more compassionate. We can practice it and build it as a skill.
An integral part of this for me is recognising some broad truths about ourselves and others. Firstly, there is connection. We are all connected in some way. We are part of a much lager whole. Pause for a moment and think about this. The device on which you are reading this was created by the labour and effort of hundreds of people. You will never know them but without their input you’d not be reading these words. The seat on which you are sitting, the room that is providing you with shelter – hundreds more people have contributed to them. Think about the food you buy. Someone tended the soil, someone grew and harvested the crops, they were transported for processing, formed into food, transported to the store where you bought them (on roads and in vehicles). Each meal you have connects you to thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands of other people.
Just like you each of those people wants to feel happy, safe, joyful, well and have peace of mind. In that very factual way, we share those basic human needs. They really are us; we really are them. There is a compassion practice that recognises this in a simple yet powerful manner. It involves the silent repetition of phrases such as “As I wish to be happy, may you be happy”, “As I wish to feel safe may you feel safe” directed at various groups of people in turn. It sounds easy right? And it is while we are thinking of friends and family, even ourselves, but how can we wish well for those for whom we have a strong dislike. Try it – you’ll see just how hard this compassion stuff is. And yet realising we can do this while in no way approving of their behaviour changes us for the better. It makes us stronger. It makes us better leaders – leaders who can respond with clarity and commitment rather than react with rhetoric and judgement.
These are the leaders we most want to follow. They are leaders we trust, and they lead with compassion.
Here is a video from Simon Sinek looking at the issues of feelings, trust, safety and leadership in more detail.
If we draw up a list of great leaders it will be those who inspired us to be our best selves whose names we note, not those who frighten us to reach down to our baser instincts. Without compassion we have no chance of become great leaders. Perhaps if we understand it more, there is no need to change what it’s called, and we can see it for the tremendous quality it is.