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Communication can deliver competitive advantage
Compassionate Leadership

Figures from a 2018 survey stated that we spent a staggering 11 hours a day watching, reading, listening or simply interacting with media on personal devices. We now know from the enforced ‘work from home’ directives, in response the pandemic, that no amount of screen time seems to contribute positively to wellbeing. In fact, the loss of physical and emotional connection with people that can only be experienced in-person has led to greater awareness of mental wellbeing.

Even before the pandemic impacted our lives, it could be said that ours is a distracted, often inward-looking society, and that we are all guilty of spending too long staring into screens and not enough looking over the top of them. For this reason, we are not always seeing and engaging with those around us. We aren’t connecting emotionally; and the danger is it’s making us less compassionate. 

At a time when the wellbeing agenda is front and centre for many organisations, the need for compassionate leadership has never been more important.

Empathy + Action = Compassion

Compassion, in essence, is about having better peripheral vision. It’s about ‘looking up and out’ and seeing others and helping them on their journey, whatever that journey may be. The ability to ‘see’ what others need is empathy but to be truly compassionate we also need to act. Recognising that someone is homeless and needs help is not compassionate until we take action to help.

The Dalai Lama explains the difference between ‘compassion’ and ‘empathy’ as: ‘Empathy is a desire to know the other person. Compassion is to act on that knowledge with positive intent.’ 

Therefore, we can say that compassion is empathy with positive action.

Manley Hopkinson, author of The Compassionate Leader, illustrates this point through a personal experience: ‘As I was driving recently in my home town, an old lady was trying to cross the road but the continuous stream of traffic did not see her. I stopped to let her cross; after all, it would have no negative impact on my journey for such a short time. But still the traffic coming the other way did not stop. Eventually, I held out my hand to stop the oncoming traffic and beckoned towards the lady. The drivers that had stopped on seeing the old lady, understood her needs and were only too happy to let her cross. It is not that we did not want to help the old lady: it is that we did not ‘see’ her!

Therefore, the first step in being compassionate is to see others and understand their needs. It is then that we can take positive action to offer support or provide for those needs. The challenge is how can we build more compassion, more often, into our daily responsibilities as a leader? 

What is Compassionate Leadership?

Manley Hopkinson states that the essence of leadership is to ‘get others to get things done’ but that compassionate leadership, whilst also being about results, is ‘to secure the best for, and the best out of, your people, your organisation, your stakeholders and yourself’. Or, to put more simply: if we can achieve the best for people, we’ll get the best out of people.

Manley also stresses the importance of permanency, ‘to secure something is more than just getting or obtaining itIt has to become something that is solid, dependable and firm’. If something is secure, he continues, ‘I can rely on it, lean on it, trust it’. But it takes effort to secure something and build trust. 

Therefore, leadership is not just about getting effort out of someone: it is also about putting effort into that someone. Simply demanding or managing that people ‘do their best’ is simply not a sustainable way of building a compassionate culture that people can rely on and trust. Indeed, ‘demanding’ and ‘managing’ might lead to compliance, but neither are unlikely to engender commitment and loyalty; in fact the culture you create will be one where people only do what it takes to be compliant and never really give their best.

Commitment not Compliance

Being compliant usually means that somebody understands the rules and can take instruction. But a compliant individual doesn’t always perform at their best or most efficient; compliant people are passive, they await instruction and do not use their initiative. They rarely share their ideas and they are unlikely to be emotionally invested. This can be hugely unproductive for both the leader and the individual.

On-the-other-hand, a committed person will always be better asset to the team. Commitment suggests that they understand the direction of travel, and they support the strategy or the vision and are willing to exert energy into achieving the goals. 

If this were a financial metric we would conclude that ‘investing in’ people who are committed, provides a greater return than only ‘demanding’ and ‘managing’ people. Compassionate Leadership, therefore, is about building relationships based on respect, trust and diversity of thought. 

When leading a team, think about people as individuals, and the team as a collection of diverse and complementary individuals with differing needs, wants and emotional responses. Relate to them. Be compassionate. Gain commitment.

Being self aware

Compassionate Leadership starts with you. It begins with acknowledging and understanding the impact you have on the people around you. This is often referred to as having ‘emotional intelligence’. To understand your emotional intelligence ‘score’ is quite daunting because you are literally putting a mirror up to assess how others experience you. There are numerous tools to assess how you are seen and thought of – asking for 360 feedback for example – but a great starting point is to look at yourself. Ask yourself:

  • How tolerant are you? 
  • How much do you know about your team?
  • How confident are you as a communicator?
  • What is your leadership style?
  • What is your attitude towards coaching and mentoring?
  • What visibility do your team have of you?
  • How do you ‘show up’ to your team – fun, serious, demanding, open, closed…?

This is not an exhaustive list but you can start to build up a picture of how others see and experience you, because all of the above influence how you behave. You can then ask yourself whether that is how you would like to be experienced and whether you are successful at building trust and commitment that gets the best out of people. 

Leading is influencing

As a leader you can only truly influence anyone when the team or individual allows himself or herself to be influenced. It’s been shown that people are more likely to be taken ‘under the wing of’ and to ‘trust leaders’ who are able to demonstrate a dynamic range of behaviours or skills to help build a stronger, deeper, influential relationships.

Social psychologists, John French and Bertram Raven believe that influence comes with power, but that power is given to them by their team – it does not come as a part of the job title. Just like respect, you have to earn it. 

French and Raven state their research defines five power bases that leaders use, and all have different effect on how people respond and why:

  1. Reward
  2. Coercion
  3. Expert
  4. Referent
  5. Legitimacy

The first two power bases, reward and coercion, have a similar effect. These are essentially about incentives and/or punishments – getting a bonus or not getting a bonus. Both are more likely to lead to compliance, but they also encourage silo mentality and a focus on self-interests rather than the team or organisation.

An expert power base describes the knowledge and expertise that teams believe the leader to have. If you can demonstrate knowledge they will give you the power base of being an expert, which means they are happy to be influenced by you because they trust your judgement.

Referent is similar to expert but describes the positive way that people refer to you in their conversations with each other. This is essentially behaving and role modelling in such a way that people buy-in to your identity and aspire to be like you, perhaps even mirroring your behaviours. This leads to commitment and you, as a leader, are a motivator. The CEO of a hospital doesn’t have to be a surgeon to gain commitment from clinical professionals.

The last power base that leads to influence is legitimacy that is earned over time as people realise that your judgement and decisions have been proven to be correct. This adds legitimacy to what you are saying and therefore makes influencing easier. Of course, it also means that if you are deemed to make poor decisions then your ability to influence will suffer.

Be compassionate

  • Compassionate leadership is something only you can provide for your team. 
  • It starts with a desire to want to secure the best for people, in order to get the best from people.
  • It is about obtaining commitment rather than compliance, and commitment is based on trust and a willingness to be influenced.
  • Influence is directly linked to power as defined by French and Raven, and power is given by the people based on actions and style.

The need for compassionate leadership has never been greater. A great place to work is one where leaders are trusted and people are happy to be led. Compassionate leadership is not simple and it requires self-awareness and openness.

Being a compassionate leader means:

  • Having good peripheral vision and seeing others around you and noticing how they are
  • Acting positively to support individuals and teams when you can see they have a need
  • Being aware of how we come across and better understanding our impact on others
  • Building a deep and dynamic power base of skills and behaviours that will let others be influenced by you
  • Developing a team of committed individuals, rather than compliant, passive individuals.