Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Compassion – A Cornerstone In Today’s Leadership


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.

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  1. On September 24th, 2014 at 1:41 PM smilin7 said:

    Listening to President Obama's U.N. speech this morning, [http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/full-text-of-president-obamas-2014-address-to-the-united-nations-general-assembly/2014/09/24/88889e46-43f4-11e4-b437-1a7368204804_story.html], I was reminded of your post.

    If this world can find a way to re-align adults' thinking while making empathy a cornerstone of what we attempt to instill in the world's children, many challenges of our world would likely be alleviated.

    A long, challenging road awaits us, your post may inspire a few more to effect change.
    Thank you,

  2. On September 27th, 2014 at 1:48 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    My pleasure; it is a long and challenging road we face. But if we look back at our collective history, of the bigger challenges our ancestors had faced and the changes they made in how they viewed the world and those around them, I know we can gain the confidence and courage to know we can do the same.

  3. On September 24th, 2014 at 3:08 PM Redrobin said:

    I could not agree with the title of the article more. Empathy can go far in building trust and relationships, both of which are essential to team collaboration and to bringing the best out of everyone.

  4. On September 27th, 2014 at 1:50 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    This is definitely the key to bringing out the best in those around us. Numerous studies have shown that to motivated over the long term requires something deeper, more meaningful, of knowing that what we do matters.

    By using our sense of compassion to become more curious about those around us and what matters to them, and then using our empathy to enact on it, we can in fact rally those we lead to commit their full selves to our shared purpose because they see the value in it for themselves, as well as for those who will benefit from our efforts.

  5. On September 26th, 2014 at 6:45 AM executivesearch1 said:

    Great article. Reminds me of the quote from Douglas MacArthur – "A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent."

  6. On September 27th, 2014 at 1:51 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Wonderful quote; thanks for sharing.

  7. On September 26th, 2014 at 7:45 AM Leo Salazar said:

    A very cogent observation, Holly, to another wonderful post by Mr. Naseer. Thank you, and I agree wholeheartedly both with his post as well as your observations.

    The problem is, one man's empathy is another's spineless appeasement. "This world" has many different perspectives and versions of reality. It's full of people who still see "leadership" as macho posturing, "my way or the highway" thinking and little tolerance for views other than their own.

    I think the best we can do, as learning and leadership professionals, is to continue to follow enlightened and lucid writers such as Mr. Naseer, and to incorporate his perspectives into our own way of living. Leading by empathic example is the best way I know how to make a change in the world.

  8. On September 27th, 2014 at 1:56 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Leo,

    Thank you so much for the kind words and generous compliment.

    I appreciate it, and like you, agree that each of us has the potential to affect change in pushing the needle towards leading those under our care not through command-and-control, but through a shared sense of belonging, purpose, and meaning.

  9. On September 29th, 2014 at 9:39 AM Jim Matorin said:

    Interesting post. Good timing since more articles are now surfacing that members of the C-suite are embracing social tools to gain credibility and increase empathy. You definitely nail how we tend to slow down with our curiosity as we get older and rely on what we have learned. Sad. I wish more people would understand that developing social smarts, a result of aggregating information daily online will result in making them better business leaders. Now that take curiosity and time which something like meetings need to be curtailed.

  10. On September 30th, 2014 at 2:52 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Jim; I'm glad you enjoyed this look at compassion and leadership that's part of this month-long series celebrating the release of my first book, "Leadership Vertigo".

  11. On February 20th, 2015 at 9:41 AM Carey said:

    This is the one I was looking forward to reading and I'm not disappointed Tanveer. Thank you. Emotional connections with people are what truly MAKE them connections. Otherwise they are nothing more than utilitarian relationships – and people can sense that. Corporate/business culture exists in a healthy way only when the PEOPLE are cared about above the projects and business goals. Thanks for highlighting that good leaders need to practice that principle.

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