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Sometimes Leadership is About Compassion

Sometimes leadership is about compassion and I want to show you why. Nobody is perfect. In fact, if you show me a perfect person, I’ll show you a liar. Yet we often expect others to act in a perfect way or at the very least, we expect them to be on the same level as we perceive ourselves to be. We call leaders hypocrites when they fall short of the ideals they promote and we ridicule colleagues that make mistakes. Have you ever made fun of a heavy person trying to work out or a homeless person looking for work? Doesn’t that make our actions the hypocritical ones, and leave us falling short of the ideals we hold?

The truth is that we have all been in situations where we have made mistakes that had dire or unintended consequences. Some of us have lost the game, destroyed the project, set the company back, or let down a loved one. The truth is that at some point in time we have all been a disappointment; either to someone else or to ourselves. Unfortunately, there always seems to be someone we hold in high regard ready to point out our failures, as though we were not already abundantly aware of it.

Frustration is indeed a natural response to failure, because it helps us to relieve some of the stress or anger that results. Regrettably, most of us rarely stop to consider what the person who failed might already be feeling and we rarely consider the repercussions of lashing out. Rarely do we consider how our ridicule or punishment only exacerbates the feelings of frustration and stress the person is already experiencing. As Emma Seppala of the Harvard Business Review states, “Not only does an angry response erode loyalty and trust, it also inhibits creativity by jacking up the employee’s stress levels (Seppala, 2015).” Thankfully, some people do think about those things. These people are a special breed.

Let me tell you about a man named Don. Don is a 76-year-old veteran who by all accounts is a very nice guy. Don had been living in his truck after losing his camper due to repo. I can’t tell you how long Don was living without utilities in his camper before he lost it. Perhaps that is irrelevant to the story anyways. The point is that after many years Don lost his family and his support network. We can only speculate about any mistakes, missteps or decisions that led to this old veteran being forced to live in an old pickup. Here’s my question to you: are you one of those who have already assumed and passed judgment on Don, or are you curious to know some of the details and learn how you can help?

As I wrote in my book Reasoned Leadership, “Leadership is having the courage to do the right thing; by seizing the moment and affecting positive change; especially when others cannot or do not (Robertson, 2016).” This requires understanding and compassion. I often advocate the “transformational” style of leadership. Transformational leadership is a style of leadership where a leader works with others to identify needed change, create a vision to guide the change through inspiration and execute the change in tandem with committed members of a group. This type of leadership requires compassion, curiosity and perhaps the willingness to be a good person. Specifically, this type of leadership requires the ability to suspend judgement and use the information at hand to affect change and positive results.

Studies have shown that people will turn down a large salary if it means working with people they don’t like (AAT, 2014). Research also demonstrates that more compassion equals more powerful results, and organizations are seeking leaders that have or can foster a more compassionate style of leadership as a result (Qiu, T., Qualls, W., Bohlmann, J. and Rupp, D. E., 2009). This is a hard quality to find or teach because it requires an emotionally intelligent, empathetic and caring person.

So let’s talk about compassion and how best to define it. The best definition of compassion that I have ever read comes from a Tibetan scholar named Thupten Jinpa. He said “Compassion is a mental state endowed with a sense of concern for the suffering of others and aspiration to see that suffering relieved.

Specifically, he defined compassion as having three components:

  • A cognitive component: “I understand you”
  • An affective component: “I feel for you”
  • A motivational component: “I want to help you”

Now let me tell you about a guy named Eric. Eric is a successful 66-year-old Branch Manager for a local Credit Union and on the verge of retirement. Eric is a good man; a tall man with a firm hand shake and warm smile. By all accounts, Eric is a great guy with a big heart who cares about the success of others and loves to teach. Educated at the University of Kansas and having spent the majority of his career in the financial industry, Eric has had interactions with a wide variety of people, which has contributed greatly to his lifetime of experience. As I like to say, “they don’t make them like this anymore”.

As it turns out, Don’s story is connected Eric’s story and it is a great example of leadership in practice. Don is a Credit Union member at Eric’s branch. Eric and his staff have known Don for quite some time and they use words like “solid” or “good” to describe him. So when Eric and his staff discovered the situation that Don was faced with, Eric sprang into action to help Don. He didn’t make a public spectacle of it, he didn’t create a “Go-Fund Me” account, he didn’t look for a way to profit or make himself look good. Instead he wrote an email to the Credit Union’s employees and took the initiative to make arrangements for Don, either personally or through his staff.

Eric and his team were able to work with government housing assistance to find Don an apartment, and coordinated needs such as furniture and housewares. They also decided to take donations from staff members to allow them the opportunity to get involved. And like any true leader would, Eric gives the credit to his staff for the success of the endeavor while finding himself teary-eyed about the outpouring of generosity. Eric says “the truth is, sometimes life is just hard”.  Indeed, but with compassionate transformational leaders like Eric, life is also filled with something we call “hope”.

For me, this is a prime example of real leadership in practice. Eric sought to elevate his team to success, leading by both example and mentorship. This is also the example of compassion. Not only did Eric show compassion, he acted upon it. Finally, and arguably the best part of Eric’s leadership in this situation, is that he put his team in a position to appreciate how powerful and rewarding it can be to show compassion and empathy for others.


Resources:

Qiu, T., Qualls, W., Bohlmann, J. and Rupp, D. E. (2009), The Effect of Interactional Fairness on the Performance of Cross-Functional Product Development Teams: A Multilevel Mediated Model. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 26: 173–187. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-5885.2009.00344.x

Britain's workers value companionship and recognition over a big salary, a recent report revealed. (2014, July 15). Retrieved from https://www.aat.org.uk/about-aat/press-releases/britains-workers-value-companionship-recognition-over-big-salary

Seppala, E. (2015, May 07). Why Compassion Is a Better Managerial Tactic than Toughness. Retrieved November 02, 2016, from https://hbr.org/2015/05/why-compassion-is-a-better-managerial-tactic-than-toughness

Robertson, David M. 2016. Reasoned Leadership: Ideas of Leadership from a Logical Perspective. USA: DMR Publications.

Edits by Kelly Gottschalk

David Robertson

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