Why Compassion Is Key To Succeeding At Leadership


With the arrival of September, many of us are returning to our regular routines now that our children are back in school and the period for taking summer vacation breaks has come to an end. For myself, this September also marks a special milestone in my writing career – specifically, it marks the one-year anniversary of the launch of my first leadership book, “Leadership Vertigo”.

Since the release of my first book last fall, I’ve been on an incredible journey speaking to organizations and audiences in Europe, the Middle East, Canada, and the US, sharing my insights on leadership and how leaders can encourage and support their employees to bring their full selves to the work they do.

This journey of sharing my writings and insights on leadership over these past five years has lead to the achievement of another very special milestone this month – that of being invited to speak this Wednesday at the Management Grand Rounds at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School.

This prestigious leadership speakers series has welcomed in the past such leadership luminaries as Tony Hsieh, Doug Conant, Robert Sutton, Amy Edmondson, and Daniel Pink. Being invited to join the ranks alongside these renowned thought leaders as one of the speakers of this series is definitely one of the highest honours of my career to date.

The timing of these two milestone events has brought to mind some of the leadership insights I’ve shared in my book and there’s one in particular that I wanted to share with my readers as I prepare for this upcoming talk. Specifically, why it’s becoming increasingly important for leaders to cultivate compassion in their leadership so that they can succeed in bringing out the best in those they lead.

In fact, one of the recurring themes I’ve been asked to speak about this year is how do leaders embrace the elements of emotional intelligence that we hear so often about in articles and studies on successful leadership. There’s a genuine interest and desire out there to know how leaders can create an environment where people are willing to dedicate their native talents, creativity, and insights to their organization’s vision and shared purpose.

As I’ve discussed in some of the talks I’ve given this year, what’s needed here is learning how to tap into the two behaviours we are all hard-wired to exhibit – that of demonstrating a sense of empathy to those around us, as well as our sense of curiosity about the people we work with and the world we live in.

Of these two behaviours, empathy is probably the easiest one for us to perceive and experience on a daily basis. Indeed, thanks to the ubiquitous nature of social media in both our professional and personal lives, many of us are active participants in immersing ourselves in the experiences of others; of showing solidarity for the suffering others have experienced or sharing in their elation in overcoming a personal struggle.

Of course, the question that arises is if we’re able to openly display empathy and concern for others regardless of where they reside or if their circumstances differ from ours, why is this behaviour sorely lacking in many of today’s workplaces? Why are there so few organizations where employees feel that sense of connection and belonging not only to the people around them, but to the work they do?

The answer to these questions is found in the second behaviour that we’re all hard-wired to exhibit – namely, our innate sense of curiosity. Granted, curiosity is something we often associate with childhood because at that point in our lives, we were most open to exploring and trying to understand the world around us, of how things worked, and the nature of the relationships we had with those around us.

And yet, the reality is that our sense of curiosity is still present within each of us; the only difference is how much do we give ourselves the permission to be open to learning more about those around us and in the process, more about ourselves as well.

This is the common stumbling block for many leaders because they have difficulty with being open with their employees about not having all the answers. But herein lies the key for why compassion is so critical to succeeding at leadership today – our compassion motivates us to listen and learn about what our employees need to be successful [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

It’s through our compassion that we demonstrate our curiosity to discover and understand what are the challenges our employees face, to empathize with what they’re going through, and being compelled to do something about it. Indeed, it’s only when we listen and learn from our employees that we’re able to truly understand them [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]; to appreciate what matters to them, and what inspires them to bring their full selves to the work they do.

We have to acknowledge the truth that we can’t get others to care about our vision until we understand what they care about [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. That we recognize what their career aspirations and goals are and how we can help them achieve it as much as we want them to help us achieve our shared purpose.

Now, I’ve talked with several leaders over the past few years and it’s disheartening to see how many are convinced that they know what their employees want while at the same time complaining about how they have to keep introducing new incentives and new perks to keep their employees motivated about the collective work of their organization.

It’s a situation that reflects the findings of a recent Ken Blanchard Company study that found that more than 80% of employees criticized their bosses for not listening to them and how more than 70% of employees want to have these conversations about their career goals and ambitions. And yet, less than 30% of bosses are actually having these conversations.

Of course, it’s easy for us to argue that this is a product of our times – that in the face of having to do more with less, with having to do things faster than before while managing these increasing demands on our time, attention, and resources, it’s only natural that leaders can’t sit down to speak with every employee about their career goals and dreams.

And yet, what we need to recognize here is that what’s missing is not simply a conversation or an informal chat in the break room. What’s missing here is compassion in our leadership – one that drives us to be present in those everyday encounters so that we’re truly hearing what those around us are telling us because we have both the curiosity to learn and the empathy to care about their reality.

Numerous studies have shown that employees have higher expectations of their leaders to not simply be effective at managing tasks, but at developing people. But how can we develop people – how can we help them be better than they are today – if we lack the compassion to care about their reality and what they need from us to be successful?

How can we bring out the best in those we lead if we’re willing to hide behind the constraints of today’s workplaces as the excuse for why we’re not tapping into those hard-wired behaviours of empathy and curiosity to ensure we are in fact creating an environment where people can not only succeed but thrive?

If we look at those examples of successful leadership – whether it be leaders we worked under or those we admire from afar – a common behaviour we see shared among them is how they were active listeners. It didn’t matter what position you held or what role you played as they had this way of making us feel important. The reason for this was simple – they were genuinely interested in what we had to say because they cared about our experiences and our reality.

These leaders understood that the power of compassion in leadership is that it makes people feel heard and understood [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]; that it allows us to be fully present to hear what those around us have to say, to recognize the value of their insights and experiences, and to tap into that human desire to lend a hand to help others be better.

So if we are to be as successful as those leaders we all admire and respect, we need to do more than simply follow their strategies and ideas. We need to bring compassion to the way we lead so we can create a sense of belonging, connectedness and meaning for those under our care.

To do this means we have to overcome our brain’s tendency to find the path of least resistance by simply focusing on what we need to get done and instead focus on reigniting that sense of curiosity and empathy that lies in wait in each of us.

In so doing, we can be the kind of leader who not only delivers results, but inspires those we lead to become that better version of themselves so that we might all collectively succeed and thrive.

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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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