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4 key traits of a compassionate leader

20 May 2020

Why is compassion a valuable trait at work and how can it set leaders apart? Hays’ Christoph Niewerth shares his insights.

Compassion isn’t a trait that has been traditionally associated with effective leadership in the world of work. After all, it isn’t being gentle, nice and compassionate that really gets things done in business, or that turns humble start-ups into industry-leading organisations, is it?

Many of us are so accustomed to the idea that the most effective leaders are tough and firm, that we mistakenly think that to be compassionate towards others is to ‘go soft’ or be a pushover when it comes to leadership.

In reality, leading with compassion can be quite the opposite. Compassionate leaders understand that it is, in fact, compassion that ultimately fuels innovation and creativity, and it therefore guides everything they do. So, as leaders, is it time we redefined in our own minds what we mean by compassionate leadership? I think so.

What are the traits of a compassionate leader? It’s about putting the development of your people at the heart of everything that you do. The typical compassionate leader, then, possesses such qualities as those I’ve listed below.

1. They hold self-awareness and self-compassion

In the words of LinkedIn’s CEO, Jeff Weiner, you need to “be a spectator to your own thoughts, especially when you become emotional”. A compassionate leader is one that is aware of their own strengths and weaknesses (and invites feedback on them) and how they are perceived by others.

Compassionate leaders also have compassion for themselves, which is an important element. As Uvinie Lubecki, CEO of Leading Through Connection, explains: “The lens through which we see ourselves is the same lens through which we see others. If we can extend kindness toward ourselves as leaders and recognise when things get tough that we’re doing our best and that our intention is to be of benefit, this can be a powerful practice.”

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2. They are able to put themselves in the shoes of others

Such leaders are also able to put themselves in the shoes of the people that they lead, which enables them to better understand the impact of their own actions and behaviours on their team, and thus do what they can to help alleviate any issues for the good of the team and wider organisation.

Compassionate leaders also know that they’re more likely to get better results from individual team members if they can understand what truly drives each of them to achieve, instead of merely ruling with threats or fear, or even giving them a financial incentive. A compassionate leader realises that while these solutions may seem superficially attractive, they often only bring short-lived boosts in employee performance.

They also understand and appreciate the unique and personal emotional barriers each team member is contending with, helping them to overcome any defeatist thoughts, as psychologist Sherrie Campbell explains in this Entrepreneur article. Ultimately, a leader who leads with compassion appreciates that the more time and effort they can put into understanding their people, the more likely they are to be able to put those people on a path to success.

3. They see themselves as the conductor of an orchestra

Compassionate leaders understand that different people do things differently, and that there isn’t just one way to do something well. They also know that they don’t know everything, which opens doors to creativity and innovative thinking within their teams.

As Campbell adds in the article mentioned above: “When leaders operate as if they know everything, they harden themselves to new ideas by stubbornly assuming they have nothing more to learn to be effective in their role.”

Compassionate leaders don’t adopt a ‘my way or the highway’ mentality. Instead, they give every member of their team the support that they require to do their work in a way that plays to their strengths. So, compassionate leaders tend to think of themselves as the conductor of the orchestra, working to help each member of their team thrive, and overcome any challenges they face.

4. They help employees along the way

As I said earlier, compassionate leadership isn’t about being soft or a pushover. It’s about giving your team members advice to help them improve, even if it’s advice that they may not want to hear or is difficult to deliver.

Compassionate leaders are good at identifying what feedback needs to be provided, and then delivering it in a way that is constructive and impactful, even if it is bad feedback, including being specific and giving examples.

Being a compassionate leader is about giving feedback that opens the recipient’s eyes up to the changes they need to make in order to improve. Importantly, a compassionate leader will also always explain to their employees that they are there to help them to get better and to give them the resources they need to succeed, while being clear on what improvements they expect to see.

What makes for an effective leader?

Ultimately, the most effective leaders know that it’s perfectly possible to be compassionate, while also genuinely holding their team members to account for their performance, while making them feel that they are an important part of the team.

So, we can deduce that being a compassionate leader is far from being soft, as many presume. It is about doing all you can to help those in your team thrive and, ultimately, to reach their full potential. By leading with more compassion, you will lay the foundations for more creativity, problem solving and innovation to grow in your organisation – which are all key to succeeding, both in today’s, but also in tomorrow’s, world of work.

By Christoph Niewerth

Christoph Niewerth is a member of the Hays Germany board. A version of this article previously appeared on the Hays Viewpoint blog.

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