Bridges to the Future: Being a Compassionate Leader

By Mark Withers


17 July 2020

In our previous articles we asked you to imagine you are in 2023 and are able to look back at this time. We asked you to consider what kind of leadership would you like to be remembered for.  

In our previous articles we asked you to imagine you are in 2023 and are able to look back at this time. We asked you to consider what kind of leadership would you like to be remembered for.  
In this article, we explore a third facet of leadership for such a time as this –  to demonstrate compassionate leadership.
With all the uncertainty, not knowing and tough decisions hanging over organisations, now is the time for leaders to show their humanity. One of the recurring observations people have noticed about how organisations have functioned during the pandemic is the heightened focus on and care for people. The C-19 crisis gave us a window into one another’s worlds. Many of the masks worn at work couldn’t hold as we stared into each other’s homes.  
Debriefing with one leadership team about how they showed up as leaders during the lockdown, they noticed just how much more visible they were to people right across the organisation; how much more they were able to engage with and listen to the concerns of people; how much more vulnerable they were about what they were going through. This is powerful learning. As we enter a world of not knowing and set off on our economic rollercoaster we know from research in neuroscience that strong ‘threat’ responses will be triggered in people. 
The default leadership style, when faced with uncertainty, is to assume control. Whilst some decisions will be necessary, other decisions will be taken simply because they give a false sense of having control over our environment. We would urge you to resist this temptation to make cuts, impose rules, take draconian actions just because you can. 

3 ways to be a more compassionate leader

If you want to lead well and bring your people with you, here are three things as starters that will help you become a more compassionate leader:

  • Show empathy. Empathy is a heightened emotional intelligence. It’s our ability to stand in another’s shoes and see the world from where they stand. It’s our ability to appreciate people who are different from us. Empathy sits at the heart of embracing diversity and being inclusive. The most powerful finding of research into empathy is that empathy is contagious. People mirror what others do. So if you live your values and lead with kindness, others will too. Research also demonstrates that empathetic workplaces tend to enjoy stronger collaborationless stress, and greater morale, and their employees bounce back more quickly from difficult moments such as layoffs.

    If you would like to explore this theme further take a look at this Harvard Business Review article by Jamil Zaki.
  • Embrace emotions. We are emotional beings. The idea that you keep can your emotions away from work or that it is unprofessional to show emotion at work is utterly unrealistic. A leader once said to me (quite emotionally) that they don’t do emotions. How people feel needs to be treated as valuable data. Emotions are a barometer. Understand them. As a leader, talk to people about what you are personally feeling as a leader. Be prepared to show some vulnerability. People want authentic, not fake leaders. 

    If you would like to explore this area further, here’s a short but excellent TED talk that gives some excellent pointers to embracing emotions at work.
  • Communicate personally. Don’t hide behind email or even a slide show. If you have got something important to say to people, get on MS Teams or Zoom or whatever platform and talk to people face to face. Good news or not, let people see you. Engage with people. Show people that it matters to you.   

Returning to the question posed at the start of this mailing series on leadership bridges to the future, we would encourage you to do three things:
1 – Reflect on how you have led since lockdown. How have people felt during this time and what experiences do you want to stick? Write a list. 
2 – Transport yourself to 2023. Write down what kind of leadership would you like to be remembered for at this time. 
3 – Think about your current challenges and identify the practical next steps that can move you towards the kind of leadership you want to be remembered for. 

 Our next ‘Bridges to the Future’ article will focus on People and your people strategy. 

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