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Compassionate Leadership: Shifting focus in the new normal

Updated: Mar 29, 2021

Change is all around us right now. Businesses are adapting to rapidly evolving market demands that were amplified and accelerated by the pandemic. At the same time, our definitions of workplaces, what’s required of the workforce, and even work itself are changing. So, it only makes sense that the attributes of effective leadership need to change too. But how?

While it’s clear that traditional “top-down” leadership isn’t going to work in our post-pandemic work world, people still look to leaders for direction and support. In this time of great change, it’s crucial for leaders to make genuine human connections with employees – and focus not just on business results but also on how those results are delivered.

What is compassionate leadership?

The events of 2020, from the global pandemic to the acceleration of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives in the workplace, reinforced the importance and value of caring about employees’ overall well-being – not just their work. As a result, the term compassionate leadership is getting a great deal of buzz.

Leading with compassion means leaning into the human aspect of leadership, getting to know employees, understanding their motivations, and listening to their challenges. It also means letting employees see the human side of you as a leader by being authentic, candid, and even vulnerable. Compassion builds trust. In turn, trust enhances collaboration, improves productivity, builds loyalty, and strengthens company culture.

Arne Sorenson, the recently deceased Chairman of Marriott International, was the epitome of an authentic, compassionate leader. During the pandemic, his communications to employees were a masterclass in delivering difficult business decisions while genuinely connecting with employees and demonstrating an understanding of the impact the company’s actions had on its people.

However, as I reflect on leadership examples, like Mr. Sorenson, and my career journey, I keep coming back to the fact that while compassionate leadership is essential, especially now, it’s not enough on its own. From my experiences – and through coaching – I know the power of tapping into hearts and minds. Employees who feel seen and heard go the extra mile. But human connection isn’t the only reason why.

Compassion + competence

Effective leaders inspire people to follow them – even when they have to make difficult business decisions or give feedback that’s hard to hear. In other words, effective leadership requires balancing compassion with competence.

A recent article in Harvard Business Review, “Compassionate Leadership Is Necessary — but Not Sufficient,” explains it well: “Showing compassion in leadership can’t come at the expense of wisdom and effectiveness. You need both. Wise compassionate leadership is the ability to do hard things in a human way.”

Looking back on my career, most of the leaders I’ve known have been primarily task- or self-oriented. Only a few created a legacy for their leadership style with human connection as a foundational element. Why is that? Combining competence and compassion isn’t as simple as deciding to do it. As I explore the concepts, I wanted a deeper understanding of how the brain – and motivation – works. That prompted me to complete a self-funded neuroscience-based coaching course.

As a coach, you need to understand yourself before you can work with others. As a leader, the same is true. Neuroscience research is showing that effective leadership starts in the brain. By better understanding yourself, your values and motivators – why you do what you do – you can gain the tools to enhance your ability to effectively mix compassion and competence as a leader.

What compassionate leadership looks like

Leaders with this style are passionate, create positive working environments, and maintain a high bar on integrity and ethics. For me, there are a few key defining attributes of compassionate leadership, and the good news is they’re all skills that can be developed, dialed up, and continually enhanced.

  • Maximizing teams: Compassionate leaders have a deep understanding of the motivations, both collective and individual, that drive their team’s success. This understanding enables the leader to effectively optimize the team’s resources and strengths. (I highly recommend reading and applying the principles from the book, Team Quotient: How to Build High Performance Leadership Teams that Win Every Time by Douglas Gerber.)

  • Eliminating roadblocks: Compassionate leaders help team members navigate barriers and solve problems. The difference is how they do it. Through their understanding of their people, they work alongside the team, helping members work through roadblocks and create new pathways to success.

  • Lifelong learning: Compassionate leaders are adaptable and are in a constant state of growth and development. They see a learning experience in every interaction, situation, or crisis and encourage a similar mindset in their teams. Perhaps former Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi said it best, “You must continually increase your learning, the way you think, and the way you approach the organization.”

The value of coaching

Organizations with a coaching culture stand the strongest and will always win. For me, coaches spark my curiosity and help to deepen my understanding of myself. With that understanding comes the ability to better connect with people – and lead teams through change with authenticity and transparency. And that ultimately creates value.

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