Compassion in Leaders

Compassion is empathy in action
Compassion is empathy in action.

To me, leadership trends in the past were more about aggressive strengths when leaders held the ideals of power, control, innovation, resilience, courage and effectiveness as the most positive attributes. While a leader’s tool belt could contain these ideals, the research about emotional intelligence and resonant leadership acknowledges a leader’s compassion. For some, compassion’s subjective nature makes it difficult to grasp. Yet, leaders, particularly in nonprofit environments, really should set compassion as a key goal.

What is your definition of compassion?

Resonant Leadership (Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee) defines compassion  as “empathy and caring in action.” Empathy is the ability to connect with people’s emotions.  It is a willingness to provide an entirely different lens than one merely of performance. Empathy steps into another’s world, hears their stresses, concerns and issues—the subjective issues that are probably more important to those we lead than tasks they are accomplishing each day.

Empathy is more about who people are than what they are doing.

As leaders, once we understand who our people are, we can assist them to be more productive, deal with their stress and work toward real solutions to problems. The authors suggest three components of compassion:

  1. Understanding and empathy for others’ feelings and experiences
  2. Caring for others
  3. Willingness to act on those feelings of care and empathy

How far do these emotions go?

We often confuse empathy with sympathy. The two are similar but separate. Sympathy is a feeling of concern. Empathy involves the understanding of feelings, even the ability to intuit unspoken emotions.

So leaders do not need to experience the gamut of their staff’s emotions to be empathetic. If such were the case, they would be emotionally spent and could not function objectively in their jobs.

Some people feel compassion may lead to out-of-sync intimacy resulting in an unhealthy work relationship. While this occasionally happens at times because of emotional needs in leaders and those they lead, pre-set boundaries and mutual knowledge of those boundaries should redirect those emotions.

Compassion is not fear-based.

Compassion in leadership should be based on a wholesome desire to connect with others and meet their needs. It begins with listening and attempting to understand those one leads. It is not driven by fear but by authentic feelings of concern.

It continues when a leader strives to exemplify and create a culture of compassion within his/her organization because to care about the needs of others is a healthy environmental characteristic .

Finally, a leader coaches those around him/her to be consistent with resonant values so that compassion becomes an attribute of their lives as well as the organization.

Compassion is but one of the powerful and complex characteristics of resonant leadership.

Leading with compassion deals with human emotions, and human emotions are different in everyone. Despite inherent challenges, in a very depersonalized world, compassion can drive people to achieve their mission and goals.

Compassion is a leadership quality that brings dignity and respect to those we work with. It is an essential part of leadership that needs to be intentionally cultivated in our workplace environments.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Some information taken from Resonant Leadership, Copyright 2005, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, All Rights Reserved. pp. 178—181.

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