In this month-long celebration of my first book “Leadership Vertigo”, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of having some of the top leadership experts – Doug Conant, Liz Wiseman, Jim Kouzes, and Barry Posner – share their insights about three of the four leadership principles discussed in my book. For this next entry in this special leadership series, I’d like to discuss the fourth leadership principle “Drive Compassion”.
A few years ago, I wrote a piece based on a tweetchat I hosted looking at the importance of empathy in leadership. Although I wrote it many years ago, it continues to be shared in various social media channels, no doubt due to our increasing awareness of the importance of empathy to leadership roles in today’s global environment.
Of course, the interesting thing about empathy is that it’s not that difficult for us to exhibit. Indeed, research from the neuroscience field has demonstrated that we’re actually hard-wired to empathize with those around us, thanks to a neural network called mirror neurons.
And the clearest example we can see of our hard-wired tendency for empathy comes from how we react to news of natural disasters or atrocities committed by other humans. Even though we may not be directly impacted by these events, it nonetheless causes a deep emotional response. While our rational mind might view these events as being not our concern, our empathy makes it so that we can’t help but feel concern and care for those we don’t even know.
But if we’re hard-wired to empathize and consequently, to exhibit compassion to those around us, how come we don’t see evidence of this behaviour in the workplace? Why are so many workplaces suffering from a lack of human compassion, connection, and shared belonging? And perhaps more importantly in light of the increasing demands for our time, attention and resources, why is addressing this critical to our ability to lead our organizations towards a more prosperous, stable, and thriving future?
In order to answer these questions, we need to recognize another trait that we are all hard-wired to exhibit – curiosity. Right from the moment that we’re born, we have this innate drive to learn and understand the world around us. We strive to understand not only how things work, but the relationships we have with those around us, and what makes them stronger and more valuable.
It’s this curiosity that builds on our innate nature to empathize that creates this sense of compassion for those around us because we’re driven to learn and understand what matters to them and why.
Unfortunately, as we grow older, we lose touch with that internal sense of wonder and fascination because we convince ourselves that our education and life experiences have provided us with the knowledge we need to know and understand the world around us. Consequently, we’re no longer interested in discovering how others experience our world, or in the case of those in leadership positions, how those we lead experience our leadership.
Seen from this vantage point, we can now appreciate that to show our employees that we care about the realities they face in our organization – of the challenges and opportunities they see going unaddressed – requires that we rekindle our sense of curiosity about ourselves and those we lead, and tying this to our sense of empathy so that we’re now driven to do something about it.
In other words, our compassion arises from our curiosity to listen and learn, paired with our innate drive to relate to the realities of those around us.
This is why compassion is vital in today’s leadership because it’s the key to the internal driving force found within each us to understand what motivates our employees, what matters to them, and how we can connect the work they do to the shared purpose that defines why we do what we do. No doubt this is why studies have shown that compassion in the workplace leads to not only higher levels of employee engagement and job satisfaction, but lower levels of employee absenteeism and burnout.
So if compassion is a cornerstone to effective leadership in today’s faster-paced, 24/7 global environment, how can we go about building and strengthening our innate ability to not only empathize, but to be curious about those we lead, and what motivates them to bring their best selves to work?
To help start with this process, here are 3 measures you can employ that will help you to reconnect with your innate sense of curiosity and empathy in order to bring more compassion to your leadership.
1. Learn to see your employees beyond the roles they play in your organization
One of the realities all leaders are grappling with is how to better manage their focus and attention given the increasing demands on their time, energy, and resources. In the face of this seemingly non-stop barrage, it’s rather easy – and understandable – for leaders to simply focus their efforts on what they want to accomplish.
Of course, the problem with this approach is that while you may feel like you’re getting things done, it will also leave your employees feeling like more of a means to an end.
This is where exhibiting compassion through our leadership becomes critical because it allows for us to remain curious about what challenges our employees face, along with the willingness to listen to what opportunities they see for our organization to succeed. In this way, we can ensure that our employees are not treated as mere cogs in the organizational wheel, but as full participants in our shared purpose.
2. Make efforts to discover what your employees’ real strengths are
When it comes to promoting the growth and agility of our organization, one obvious approach is to build on the existing strengths of our employees.
Unfortunately, in our haste to align our employees’ efforts with our organization’s long-term needs, it’s easy to view employee strengths as what they’re good at, as opposed to what internally drives them to challenge themselves to learn and grow.
Here again we can find the value of bringing compassion to our leadership as it can help us to identify what our employees’ real strengths are by seeking to better understand and know those we lead – of what serves as the fuel for their internal motivation to not only aim for better, but to learn and grow.
By increasing our awareness of where our employees not only excel, but thrive through the work they do, we can better identify opportunities to not only help them become stronger contributors to our organization, but to helping them feel like what they do matters.
3. Be open about not having all the answers
In light of today’s faster paced environment, it’s easy for us to simply focus on what we know about a particular situation to guide or inform the decisions we make for our organization. And yet, if we walk around thinking we have the experience and knowledge to know what needs to be done, how can we truly listen and understand the realities our employees face, not to mention what it’s really like to work for us?
We have to remember that in today’s 24/7, global environment where changes and adaptations are happening at an accelerated rate, it’s impossible for anyone to truly know or understand the complexities of what our organization has to address or overcome.
And this truth doesn’t diminish our ability to lead, but it strengthens it because we can shift our focus away from ourselves – from proving we have what it takes to be in a leadership role – out to those we lead and how we can help them achieve the goals we set out for our organization.
This is why compassion is so critical to leadership today because it’s not in amassing accolades and titles that we succeed as leaders, but because we create an environment where we inspire and enable those around us to bring their best selves to the table so we can collectively succeed and grow.
The simple truth is that most of the decisions we make on any given day are not derived from a rational mindset, but from a response to our emotionally-driven, network of mirror neurons where we seek commonality and connection both to the work we do and to those around us.
And that means that compassion in leadership involves an honest and more outward-focused approach to leadership that allows us to tap into the native talents, creativity, and insights of those we lead.
Indeed, to effectively lead others, we need to show them that we are being present to hear, understand, and provide those under our care with what they require to succeed and thrive under our leadership.