I call myself a compassion-focused leader, and I have been asked by quite a few people what a compassion-focused leader is. Numerous leaders, such as Jeff Weiner at LinkedIn ,use the term compassion in reference to leadership, but what follows is my own definition — what it means to me.
Let’s start with how I define compassion.
Compassion is having the empathy to understand what another person is feeling and the willingness to do something to improve their situation. With compassion, there is a desire for others to be truly happy. When I talk about happiness, I am not referring to hedonic pleasure, the moment by moment quenching of desires that many think of as happiness. Hedonic happiness is not true happiness; whether it is eating ice cream or getting a promotion, none of those things will make you truly happy. There may be pleasure in the moment or a sense of accomplishment, but those feelings all fade. When I talk about happiness, I am talking about the long term fulfillment of true, eudaemonic happiness. Eudaemonic happiness is best summarized as human flourishing. It is an inner joy and fulfillment that you feel when you have done something meaningful like having volunteered your time to a cause you care about or helped someone in a meaningful way.
I define leadership as the set of behaviors that inspire others to follow you. You are not a leader until someone has chosen to follow you. Choosing to follow means that people have — for a time — set aside their individual needs in order to work for the benefit of the group. They choose to follow when they see and believe in the vision the leaders sets forth and they believe the leader is capable of reaching and will help others reach a common goal. The trust that followers place in their leader is that the leader will look out for the followers individually while followers work for the greater good. A leader must have integrity to build that trust. That trust, when extended throughout the members of the group, helps to foster psychological safety to help everyone do their best work.
As a leader with compassion, my goal is to make sure my team is fulfilled and cared for and to build a sense of trust and psychological safety for the team so that they are able to bring their best selves to work.
This does not mean that as a compassionate leader I remove every discomfortable moment from someone’s day. I am not trying to please people or to be nice, but rather making sure that people feel they are being acknowledged, respected and cared about as the people they are.
It does not mean that I am a pushover, that I only tell people what they want to hear or that I hide issues. It does mean that I am open, honest and transparent with my team. It does means having hard conversations with the goal of helping people improve their performance and support the success of the team at large and that I frame critical feedback in a way that will make the person open to hearing it.
It does not mean that I suffer weak performers or those not providing what the team needs. It does mean that I put the people and the team first.
Most importantly, it means making sure that my team knows I care about them and that I am committed to their individual and the team’s success.
For me this is just the beginning. My goal is to push compassionate leadership to its limits and into what I see as the ultimate form of leadership: altruistic leadership. More of that in a future article.