If you are a leader, many things are expected from you. Skill. Vision. Charisma. There are other characteristics that don't always come to mind when thinking of leadership. Loyalty inspires loyalty. Calmness under pressure. Trust inspires trust. Many of the characteristics are quite hard to quantify and difficult to learn. Some people just seem to be born with them and others grow into it, being shaped by their experiences.
Full disclosure. If you have gotten to this point. The title was click bait. There is no simple trick. Sorry!
I wanted to write about compassion. I will make a case for why it is important for leaders and point you toward how you can cultivate it.
Compassion: The missing skill
Skill you may ask? It may sound weird to describe compassion as a skill. Call it what you will but it can be learned, and it must be used skillfully. That sounds like a skill doesn't it?
How can developing such a touchy-feely thing as compassion help you be a better leader? Let me list the ways developing compassion has helped me.
- I am calmer when difficult situations arise with colleagues
- Colleagues are more open to my feedback and arguments
- People are more trusting of me
- Difficult situations that previously were awkward are no longer because of a genuine concern for the others well-being
- I derive more joy out of working with people I have more compassion for
- Compassion often compels me to help others
- Compassion gives me a desire to invest in others growth and well-being
Looking at that list it may not be immediately evident how these make you a better leader. Well it depends on what type of leader you are wanting to be but I can attest that as I have cultivated compassion loyalty, calmness, and trust have developed in me. As these things have grown in me, so has the measure that others have shown those qualities back toward me.
I wanted to draw attention to using the skill skillfully. Compassion does not mean empathy. For me compassion means that I care for a person's well-being and am motivated to increase or protect that well-being. Empathy on the other hand is feeling the emotions that another is feeling. As a leader, feeling the emotions of everyone you lead would be extremely draining.
It seems to me that equanimity is important when in a situation where compassion is in play. You may be in a situation where you have to do something that is going to hurt the other person. Empathy would motivate you to not want to hurt the person because you would feel that pain as well. Compassion on the other hand motivates you to do it in a way that protects the person and lends emotional support but is still responsible.
You may think that compassion is not something that can be learned but a few years ago I discovered it was. In Buddhist tradition there is a technique called Loving kindness. It is a meditation exercise but you do not need to be a practicing meditator to practice it. In fact religions around the world has been practicing it for millennia. In many religions it is common to pray for the goodwill of those around you, especially your loved ones. If you are religious this act will probably seem quite familiar. The difference being in how it really becomes a practice rather than something inserted in a prayer.
I am sure there are many variations on how to practice this but this is how I do it. Don't be afraid to experiment with what works for you.
- To get started find a quiet place to sit where you will not be interrupted.
- Visualize the most cherished person in your life. This could be a partner, a child, or maybe a parent.
- In your mind say their name followed by "... I wish you peace, happiness, and freedom from suffering".
- While doing the previous step try direct feelings of love and goodwill toward the person
- Move on to your next most cherished person and repeat the steps. Saying the phrase and projecting those feelings.
You will go from family, to friends, then colleagues, and acquaintances, until you are vaguely just visualizing a specter of a stranger and directing those feelings toward your fellow humanity. Doing this daily for just a few minutes a day will start to cultivate a sense of compassion for everyone you come across. Not only will this build relationships with colleagues at work but it will also enrich your personal life.
I hope I have convinced you that compassion is both an important aspect of leadership and something that can be improved.
One disclaimer: I am not sure what the results of this are without a corresponding practice in mindfulness. I mentioned exercising equanimity in difficult situations and mindfulness meditation is how I cultivate that equanimity.
One last thing. Despite the title of this post, this is not a cheap trick to apply. It will take time and discipline to cultivate. The effects will be gradual and only be noticeable when you look back months or years on how you viewed the people around you.
I really hope you will give this a chance. Over time the benefits can be great and meaningful.