The Compassionate Leader

compassion

The current tenor of the Republican presidential campaign has got me thinking about the lack of compassion expressed by our so-called leaders. It wasn’t that long ago when George W. Bush campaigned using the phrase “compassionate conservatism,” though you might argue he never really governed that way.

For some reason the term compassion has become divisive and reserved for discussion of those who have fallen through the safety net and only the “truly needy.” It’s as if compassion should be conveyed only as a last resort and for a small minority of us. The fact is we all need compassion at some time and we should all feel compassion for others when they need it.

“Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism,” said Hubert H. Humphrey. I hope we haven’t gotten to the point where there’s no room for compassion in our capitalism.

Whether in politics or business, leaders who demonstrate compassion are more likely to connect with and gain lasting followers.

Feeling compassion in the workplace means staying in touch with your own feelings as well as those of others, which can result in more accurately understanding and navigating all your workplace relationships. Compassion is a leadership trait that should be demonstrated by leaders at every level within an organization.

That’s because research has shown that those who experience compassion in the workplace feel more positive emotions and are more committed to the organization. When bad news is delivered compassionately, workers are more likely to remain supportive of the organization. And when you act with compassion at work, you can increase your satisfaction and lower your overall stress.

Compassionate leaders put people before procedures, they courageously say what they feel, and they lead with sincere and heartfelt consideration for others.

Perhaps the most important tool of compassion is empathy, which is the ability to understand what someone else experiences and reflect that understanding back to them. Empathy is also a vital component of what it means to be emotionally intelligent.

According to Brené Brown, Ph.D., author of Rising Strong, the prerequisite for real empathy is compassion. You can’t respond to someone empathetically unless you are willing to be present to their pain, which requires compassion.

“It’s important to note here that empathy is understanding what someone is feeling, not feeling it for them,” writes Brown. “If someone is feeling lonely, empathy doesn’t require us to feel lonely, too, only to reach back into our own experience with loneliness so we can understand and connect.”

But don’t confuse empathy for sympathy. As Brown further explains, when someone says, “I feel sorry for you” or “That must be terrible,” they are standing at a safe distance. Rather than conveying the powerful “me too” of empathy, sympathy communicates “not me,” and then adds, “But I do feel for you.” This does not have nearly the impact empathy provides.

For you to demonstrate empathy inside an organization, you must have the foundation of compassion.

Being compassionate doesn’t mean taking on and solving other people’s problems. Nor does it mean you have to agree with the actions that got the individual into a particular situation. And being compassionate doesn’t mean you don’t hold the individual accountable.

What compassion does mean is noticing another person’s suffering, connecting with him or her both cognitively and emotionally, and then responding in a caring and proactive fashion. You can be compassionate by agreeing to disagree, yet still hold the person accountable.

In this way your compassion helps the individual, the organization and yourself.

I’d like to think we’re seeing an increase in compassionate business leaders who sincerely value the welfare of their employees, customers and surrounding community. This kind of leadership will lead to more engaged employees, satisfied customers, a healthier community and ultimately greater shareholder return.

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