We hear a lot about resilience in leadership today. We also hear about innovation, courage, and other typical leadership skills. However, not as much attention is paid to compassion, although it should be. In truth, compassion is one of the most essential skills for a leader or manager. Without it, even resilience may not be enough to get you through.

Why Compassion Is One of the Most Valuable Leadership Skills

Why Does Compassion Matter?

Without compassion, leaders face fundamental challenges that could threaten their very ability to, well, lead. Why is that? It’s simple – without the ability to empathize, without a compassionate stance, it becomes all too easy to forget the simple fact that businesses are fictional things.

There is no Nike, no Apple, no IBM. Sure, there are entities on paper, massive offices dedicated to those companies, and products that bear their respective logos. But pull back the thin veneer of branding and what will you find? Nothing. Vapor.

The truth is that a company is nothing more than a collection of people working towards common goals. In the case of Nike, it’s a group of people working to design and manufacture products that support performance and health. With Apple, it’s a group of people dedicated to innovative products that improve personal and professional lives through thoughtful technology.

Without compassion, it becomes too easy to assume that those office buildings, logos, and products somehow create the company, but the truth is without your people, your company has nothing. Compassion allows you to connect with your team on a human level, avoid disconnects, and skip those moments of contempt when you think that your team is willfully failing you.

What Is Compassion All About?

While it can be easy to understand the need for compassion based on the explanation above, it becomes a little harder to understand what it is all about and how it’s applied in a business environment. We’re used to hearing about compassion and how it is involved in situations of human suffering, but no one on your team should be suffering, should they?

There are also many examples of how compassion is misunderstood. Some people assume that being compassionate means showing unconditional love. Others believe it means being “soft”.

The truth is that being compassionate is nothing more than your ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes, experience their challenges, and then take positive action. Isn’t that empathy, you ask? No; they’re related, but not the same.

Empathy is putting yourself into someone else’s situation and feeling what they feel, but not necessarily taking action. Compassion takes things one step further. Emotions researchers define compassion as “the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.” It is easy to see why it is often confused with pity or empathy, though.

  • Pity is seeing a homeless person and feeling bad for them, often from a privileged position, which gives pity a negative connotation.
  • Empathy is seeing a homeless person and being able to put yourself into their situation and experience their point of view. However, there may be no desire to take action.
  • Compassion is empathy combined with the desire and motivation to change the paradigm.

How do we translate this to the workplace, though? Simply put, leaders must develop compassion to work well with their teams. It is not just about “playing nice”, though. It is about treating them like human beings, realizing that they have different abilities, strengths, and weaknesses than you do, and avoiding the pitfall of contempt.

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Carol Kauffman relates a story about being hired as a coach for a successful CEO who’d led her business through the Great Recession to emerge stronger on the other side. However, during the process, she had managed to alienate most of her team, who had critical feedback for her, dangerous levels of disengagement, and ultimately communicated to the board that the CEO needed serious coaching if they were to work together.

In the article, Kauffman relates that it was the CEO’s unthinking contempt for her team members that led to the disconnect. It was her lack of compassion that led to this contempt, though. She was unable to connect with them as human beings. Because she could not put herself in their position and strive for change, she assumed that their lack of performance was a choice and that they were intentionally betraying her. Incensed, she took over projects herself, pushed people she felt weren’t toeing the line out of the way, and generally made life miserable for everyone.

Bringing compassion into the workplace doesn’t require being soft or becoming a hippie. It means being able to stop, assess your attitude, realize that you may not be right to judge someone’s performance on your own, and walk to their position. Once there, you must assess the situation from their perspective and find ways to bridge the gap. It’s about making an extra effort to be kind, to be empathetic, and then to act on the insights that develop.

Becoming a Compassionate Leader

Really, the most important takeaway from this post is this: human beings need (and deserve) positive social connections with those around us, including our leaders. Leaders must also be able to develop a connection with their teams – something that goes deeper than judging or contempt when performance expectations are not met. Of course, reaching that point can be challenging.

Take baby steps. Reminder yourself, possibly multiple times per day, to look deeper, to have compassion, and that the situation is usually not what you assume it to be. Over time, you’ll become kinder and more compassionate, and thus better able to lead your team to success.