Are we seeing the death of ‘command and control’ style leadership? More and more, top executives and leaders are choosing to invest in people, recognising the benefits of developing a leadership style of consideration and care: compassionate leadership writes Stuart Taylor.
Compassion earns the respect and discretionary effort that creates high-performance and high-trust cultures.
Neuroscience has shown that we have unspoken communication with others through the sub-conscious activity of our mirror neurons. We are continually broadcasting our own emotions, reactions and undisclosed judgements of others. For a leader, this has huge implications. Compassionate leaders integrate and synchronise values, thoughts, emotions, expressions and presence.
The Easy Road Oft Travelled
Based on an ongoing study with thousands of executives, Daniel Goleman reported six leadership styles with the “easiest” default styles being Commanding (“do as I say!”) and Pacesetting (micro-managed intensity). The total focus of these styles is task outcome – often at the expense of staff wellbeing, retention and long term performance.
The Critical Role of Empathy
Sustainable, value-adding leadership requires investment of time and energy. The four high-performance leadership styles reported by Goleman (coaching, affiliative, democratic and visionary) depend on the skillful application of empathy where we try to “walk in someone else’s shoes”. Empathy starts with a curiosity about others, active listening, attunement to non-verbal queues, openness to diversity and ultimately requires the ability to see the perspective of others. Empathy is an awareness competence not an action competence. That said, empathy does require conscious and unconscious effort and motivation to understand the emotions of others. In the busy world of large organisations, empathy is all too often the casualty of back-to-back meetings, 60 hour weeks OR a lack of motivation to enquire.
The Social Investment Model (see graphic) provides a framework for surveying a leader’s options in how to interact with and influence others.
So, what is compassion? We define compassion as “caring for self and others in pursuit of the greater good”. Compassion is not soft. Compassion takes the bigger picture into account. The compassionate leader creates a calm culture; not breeding fear through punishment of performance gaps. Performance gaps are viewed as learning and coaching opportunities. The compassionate leader appreciates the talents of their team members and seeks to liberate their potential. Individuals with a poor fit may be assisted to find their passion in other roles or organisations. A leader’s expression of compassion requires courage, strong self-belief and the absence of an obsessive need for affiliation.
Social Investment: Leading with Over-Care
For some leaders, compassion is too tough, creates personal anxiety and is actively avoided. The easier option is to use sympathy. Sympathy is “soft” love, it is feeling sorry for others and it is leader as friend. Leaders of this style agree with and own the emotions and situation of the individual. Sympathetic resolutions typically result in inequity for other staff and short-term benefit for the individual. Sympathetic leaders avoid conflict or aim for compromise rather than win/win. Unfortunately, there are no winners with a sympathetic leader. Sympathetic leaders become ineffective AND emotionally drained, the individual’s emotional state deepens and the organisational culture comes to expect this leadership approach.
Social Investment: Leading without Care
For other leaders who adopt a Commanding or Pacesetting style; empathy and compassion (and sympathy) are too soft, complicated, inappropriate and time-consuming. The approach for these leaders is to socially invest through social ignorance (not aware), indifference (don’t care) or contempt (don’t respect, aloof). A small subset “stir the emotional pot” through organisational politics and antipathy (coercion, bullying). No surprise that Goleman’s research shows that these leadership styles and approaches to social investment are correlated with the destruction of organisational value.
Ideas for Building a Compassionate Leadership Style
Start with Empathy. Listen deeply to others. Be interested in their emotions and perspectives. During interactions, tune in to their facial expressions and body language.
Start at Home. Build emotional self-awareness, compassion and love for self. Practice humility and forgiveness when you make mistakes.
Notice when Anger Arises. What is the source of the anger? Can I regulate my anger by building empathy and compassion?
Consider meditation. Meditation is one way to build compassion. During your meditation, reflect on compassion and experiencing care for the people around you and the broader community.
Catch your Thoughts. Actively catch yourself falling into contempt with moral judgements of others. Start with an optimistic assumption that the vast majority of people are coming from a good place.
Start a compassion project. Get involved in a community project for those less fortunate.
Compassionate leadership builds resilience and energy for the individual, leader and organisation. It creates a high-performance, high-trust culture, where teams are engaged and aligned with organisational goals and values.