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Henley Leadership Group Blog

How To Be A More Compassionate Leader (And Why It's So Important)

Compassionate Leader Who Listens

Previously Published on Forbes

Several years ago, I was working with a team at a healthcare company, and one of its more senior members made an instant impression with me — only it wasn’t in such a great way. She always seemed like she was trying to prove how smart she was, how capable and “in the know” she was. She used charm to get what she wanted but also created a culture of competition, arguing, defensiveness and bullying. Mostly, I found her arrogant and annoying. I had little compassion for her and avoided her as much as I could.

But the leader she reported to, my client, saw something more. He felt devoted to her in a way he couldn’t really explain.

One day, he hosted a team retreat and with my facilitation, invited each team member to share about their lives growing up. When it was this team member’s turn, she told the group about how she was sent to boarding school at age six. As a mother (and as someone who didn’t grow up in a world where boarding school was a common thing), imagining this little girl without her mother or father in her daily comings and goings at such a young age was heart-wrenching.

She went on, sharing how she had to learn to take care of herself. She knew that on some level she was on her own. She’d also developed what she called a “winning formula” for getting through life: She’d figured out that she could get what she wanted and needed by being charming.

All of a sudden, she made more sense to me.

By sharing the story of her young life and the coping mechanisms she employed just to keep going, she revealed who she is, how she came to be and why she does the things she does. She made sense to her team and her leader. Her openness created compassion.

Of course, there is still an issue here that needed to be addressed – the unconscious creation of a culture of defensiveness and bullying. Once the leader has seen the pattern and connected the dots between her past and its impact on her team – her supervisor can help her to see how this behavior may be impacting others and even interfering with her career and effectiveness. Coming from a place of compassion, informed by listening, empathizing and opening people up to their unique power, allows them to be primed to take it in.

This situation reminded me that each of us is doing the best we know how to do. We all take the hand we were dealt and try to figure out how to make something decent out of it. We all have really good reasons for being exactly the way we are.

The fact is, other people will make more sense to you if you take the time to understand where they’re coming from. But first, as leaders, we need to create more of these opportunities for people to reveal themselves — and then we have to make it safe for them to share.

Three Steps to Becoming a More Compassionate Leader

1. Listen — really listen. “Seek first to understand and then to be understood,” Stephen Covey wrote in in his seminal book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” Compassionate leaders get out of the way and focus their attention on the people around them. They seek to understand the perspectives, motivations and roadblocks of their team members.

This isn’t a passive state. People can tell when you’re listening fully and without judgment, just as they can tell when you’re tuned out or waiting for them to finish so you can chime in. If you’re not really paying attention or you’re silently judging them, they’re not likely going to open up to you again in the future.

2. Cultivate empathy for the people you work with. As author Sherrie Campbell explains, “When empathy is present, defensiveness decreases and something positive replaces it. Empathy opens doors and removes confusion. It softens the minds and hearts of others. When people are open, this is exactly when the compassionate leader can be more creative in solving problems in ways that drive productivity and long-term success.”

Take time to sit down and engage with your team members in conversations that have nothing to do with the task at hand. Ask questions like, “Where did you grow up?” “What have you fought for throughout your life?” “What events of your life have had the biggest impact on you?” These questions invite sharing and opening, and the answers will usually lead to you to compassion.

3. Help make people’s lives better. Compassionate leaders use the power of their role to lead others into the discovery of their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Your compassion can be the safe space for really courageous and authentic conversations. You can tell the truth as you see it, with the other person’s best interest at the forefront of the conversation. Compassionate leaders view the growth and development of the people they lead and the communities they serve as the great makers of their success.

The key is to set aside your judgments and opinions and stories. This is the heavy lifting part of your job as a leader. Can you listen wide open? Compassion can arise from this place. You see your own humanity in others. People are all learning and doing the best they can. If they had something more to offer, they would certainly offer it.

Ask yourself whether or not becoming a more compassionate leader is the next challenge for you. Your team will thank you.