Michelle writes an article for Business Zone – Is compassionate leadership now essential for CEOs?

30th September, 2015

This article was originally written for Business Zone by Michelle Wright.

I would hope to think of myself as compassionate. Our social enterprise Cause4 was after all set up to support the charity and social enterprise sector to grow and develop, and compassion sits right at the heart of our values in terms of wanting organisations to maximize their potential to help people in need both in the UK and internationally.

I was therefore delighted to be included in Salt magazine’s recent compassionate leader list, but also feel rather an imposter. As whilst I’m learning these skills, I recognise that I have got so much of this wrong in recent years. Quite often, in the demands of running a business and needing to achieve results, I have not been as compassionate or as kind as I would like. I also note amongst my peers that compassion and self-compassion is usually not high up in the skillset of founding entrepreneurs. As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos notes, for leaders it is ‘much, much harder to be kind than to be clever’.

Softer skills for leaders is a fascinating area. We condition leaders to lead with their heads and not their hearts, and expect them to be strategic and tough, focused on both the competition and results. And when you are faced with the uphill battle of running a start up, in my experience you are just so busy spinning plates and meeting client demands, as well as the internal demands of staffing and payroll that it is very easy to revert to a rather authoritarian, directive style of leadership. And alongside this, personal judgement and criticism of self and others is an inevitable part of beating yourself up when things are not going well enough – or when you feel, as so many leaders do, that you ‘are not good enough’.

Compassion is seen to be synonymous with feelings, empathy and kindness. But it’s important to remember that these behaviours can be developed and learned. Whilst undoubtedly some people have compassion as a strong attribute, it is a trainable skill and behaviour that can be developed over time with practice, reflection and coaching. And the costs of not doing it are obvious to see – the gauge of a compassionate leader is how comfortable staff feel, and that they feel heard, understood and respected.

Similarly acknowledging our own needs as leaders, behaving congruently with our values and principles, feeling authentic and self-respect are powerful motivators and rewards for us to continue to take on the challenge and daily grind of leading complex and challenging organisations.

So what are the benefits of compassionate leadership? Some thoughts follow below:

  1. Improved staff engagement and retention - employees feel supported by leadership based on values and authenticity, which counteracts the negative affects of judgement and bias.
  2. Improved self-compassion - helping to diminish burnout, increase resilience and reduce stress in leaders. Compassionate leaders see value in encouraging, facilitating and ensuring those that they lead to have good work-life balance, whilst also engaging in such practices themselves.
  3. Better working relationships between colleagues in general and improved trust - compassionate leadership ensures better connection and collaboration with a ‘people first’ approach. Whilst it’s difficult to argue that leaders need to get results, it’s how these results are achieved that matters.
  4. More adaptable and flexible leadership - with a leader in tune and able to encourage self-reflection and development and to focus on developing talent and potential. Compassionate leaders facilitate change through the relational aspects of leadership, rather than through a carrot and stick approach.
  5. Encourage constant development - this relates to their own careers, as well as developing future leaders. Self-compassion opens the door for leaders to address weaknesses and to share mistakes with employees, helping leaders feel more approachable, relatable and human.

Overall, compassionate leaders move the debate from ‘I’ to ‘We’, motivating staff to achieve their potential. It shouldn’t be underestimated that it takes both courage and nerve to be able to do this well. Compassionate leaders do not leave this behavior to chance, they actively work at developing these qualities and behaviors.

And finally it’s also important to recognize that these behaviours go two ways. In our culture at Cause4, we now make it clear that as Senior Managers we will aim to operate in particular ways with respect and genuineness, but in turn those values also need to be demonstrated throughout the organisation. Nothing changes if compassion flows just one way.

The cliché treat people how you would like to be treated is vital in compassionate leadership, and it is certainly not good enough to be in the mode of ‘do as I say, not as I do’. And I for one have much learning ahead…

“The Creative Entrepreneurship Scheme completely rewired my brain.”

Ruth Mariner, Gestalt Arts