The Compassionate Leader

April 2, 2016

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.

Leaders Who Ask For Help

March 18, 2016

In my work as a leadership coach I regularly encounter senior managers and directors who desire to become leaders, but many fail to understand that the leap is much more than a title, salary and corner office.

Leadership isn’t so much appointed as it is earned through your management track record and, perhaps just as importantly, the soft skills you demonstrate.

Soft skills include the ability to communicate clearly and effectively, inspire people to deliver their best, organizational savvy, courage to make hard decisions, and the ability to admit you don’t have all the answers. This last one means demonstrating humility and often runs counter to what we expect in our leaders.

“In a culture of scarcity and perfectionism, asking for help can be shaming if we’re not raised to understand how seeking help is human and foundational to connection,” writes author and researcher Brené Brown in her book Rising Strong. “But the truth is that no amount of money, influence, resources, or determination will change our physical, emotional, and spiritual dependence on others.”

None of us have all the answers and the strongest leaders are those who not only acknowledge this to themselves, but demonstrate it to others. As much as we may be seeking a single person to have all the answers and take care of everything, the reality is no one person can do this.

However, we live in a culture that presents it that way. Think about sports and how despite the need for total team effort, the media presents Payton Manning and the Denver Broncos or Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. NBA match-ups are promoted as LeBron James and the Cavaliers versus Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors.

Taking nothing away from the leadership these talented athletes demonstrate, we discount and denigrate the efforts of those around them who contribute to victories. We give too much credit to the individual athletes when they succeed and lay on too much blame when they fail.

In the more serious arena of politics, this lack of humility and the leader’s inability to rely upon others can be much more troubling. When a leader claims he or she has all the answers, beware because this can mean a lack of self-awareness, extreme egotism, narcissism and will likely lead to destructive and even catastrophic decisions.

When Republican presidential front-running candidate Donald Trump was recently asked by host Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” who he would rely on for help with foreign policy, he said:

“I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain. I’ve said a lot of things … I speak to a lot of people, but my primary consultant is myself, and I have a good instinct for this stuff.”

Despite no experience in domestic or foreign policy, Trump is essentially saying we should take him on faith. He says he’s smart and he can figure it out. In this bizarre political season, vetting potential leaders of the free world should demand more than this.

In the corporate setting, those leading from a cool and professional distance are unable to make sound decisions because, like all of us, they have blind spots and areas where they are simply deficient. When these leaders refuse to ask for help they risk alienating their people and make bad decisions.

The difficulty with asking for help is because it is emotionally risky and may expose our uncertainty. This is, however, the exact vulnerability necessary for us to fully connect with others. Without the courage to risk opening up and being seen, there can be no connection.

Just the other day I spoke with a leader who described the most powerful and important day in his career. It was at an off-site where they were discussing the importance of trust. When it was brought up that there was a trust problem in the organization, he invited feedback as to whether he was someone who could be trusted. The answer came back negative.

Without becoming defensive, he asked for examples of why this was the case, and in front of the entire group he listened with an open mind and open heart. He invited follow up conversations with each of the individuals who spoke up in order to learn from them and to express his perspective. Later he came to find not only did these individual relationships improve, but so did trust, his satisfaction at work and his overall growth as a leader, culminating with a promotion.

The ability to courageously expose our vulnerability and ask for help is the very thing that builds our leadership capacity. Demonstrating humility that runs counter to the image we’re trying to live up to facilitates an important connection to those we want as followers.

Expecting leaders to be anything other than emotionally vulnerable and imperfect human beings is detrimental to our institutions and our very livelihood. Instead, let leaders risk exposing their ignorance in order to raise their competence and connection with those we want them to lead.

Organizational Health Key to Innovation

April 3, 2014

Is risk encouraged or discouraged in your organization? What happens when someone makes a mistake?

When I talk with a potential client with regard to his or her organization, these are questions I like to ask because they provide me with an indication of just how much of a learning organization it may or may not be. Peter M. Senge describes this concept in great detail in his book, “The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization.”

So much of organizational health is determined by how these two questions are answered because a healthy organization is one that knows calculated risks and mistakes are necessary in order to grow and prosper.

Risk is inherent in business and most businesses would never have started if their founders were risk averse. As companies get larger, control often increases to help maintain structure and order. It can also stifle risk and the resulting innovation.

Organizations that try to minimize mistakes are also likely to minimize innovation. Those that accept mistakes as part of growth, however, are likely to reap more innovation.

Innovation doesn’t have to be about creating the next iPhone: it can also be about finding new materials to minimize production costs, restructuring the workforce to be more efficient, or expanding into new and unproven markets.

Innovation requires being open to risk and allowing for mistakes.

So much of risk taking is the ability to make oneself vulnerable. Being vulnerable can often lead to criticism, ridicule and embarrassment. It can also lead to creativity and spur new ideas.

Vulnerability is all too rarely seen in our leaders. However, I believe it actually demonstrates great strength of character and brings about loyalty.

In Brene Brown’s book “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent and Lead,” she discusses the importance of our ability to be vulnerable. She argues that this vulnerability is not a weakness, but instead a path to courage, engagement and meaningful connection. And vulnerability can spark a spirit of truth—and trust—in organizations as well as our families, schools and communities.

Vulnerability is what unites us as humans and, contrary to popular belief, when demonstrated by leaders, actually inspires us to follow them.

In her book, Dr. Brown has 10 questions that help uncover the health of an organization:

  1. What behaviors are rewarded? Punished?
  2. Where and how are people actually spending their resources (time, money, attention)?
  3. What rules and expectations are followed, enforced, and ignored?
  4. Do people feel safe and supported talking about how they feel and asking for what they need?
  5. What are the sacred cows? Who is most likely to tip them? Who stands the cows back up?
  6. What stories are legend and what values to they convey?
  7. What happens when someone fails, disappoints, or makes a mistake?
  8. How is vulnerability (uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure) perceived?
  9. How prevalent are shame and blame and how are they showing up?
  10. What’s the collective tolerance for discomfort? Is the discomfort of learning, trying new things, and giving and receiving feedback normalized, or is there a high premium put on comfort (and how does that look)?

These questions can be difficult because they will cause those answering them to be vulnerable. However, the process can lead to great insight and perhaps fundamental shifts inside the organization. Ultimately, discussing them with a large group could reap huge benefits and begin to help heal the organization.

One of my favorite quotes is by the wrier Anais Nin who said, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” What if rather than holding back and keeping yourself from showing your vulnerability, you brought it forward? This would take great courage, but it would also free you from what holds you back and expand your life.

Is it risky? You bet. But there may be no better way to transform yourself and your organization to become healthy.  And a healthy you in a healthy organization will bring about needed innovation.