The Unglamorous Secret of Compassionate Leadership

Lily Garcia Walton
Feb 5, 2018 · 4 min read

Through the deserted gate,
Full of ripened leaves,
I follow the small path.
Earth is as red as a child’s lips.
Suddenly
I am aware
Of each step
I make.

Each Step
Thich Nhat Hanh

I recently watched an interview Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn. Weiner lamented the scarcity of compassion among business leaders, including the willingness to tell an employee honestly and unambiguously that he or she is not succeeding. The concept of radical honesty about performance struggles is not a novel one, of course. The iconic Jack Welch, for example, has long advocated for an “honest, straight-between-the eyes” feedback session from which an employee emerges with a clear idea of where he or she stands. It is undeniably cruel and inhumane not to tell an employee when he or she is failing to meet expectations, together with sufficient notice — whenever possible — to allow that employee an opportunity to course-correct. However, the mere absence of inhumane and cruel treatment does not equate to compassion.

As expressed in the interview I watched and in what Weiner has written, compassionate leadership means also embracing the invitation to see things clearly through another person’s perspective. The result of this experiential shift is a compelling and natural desire to do all that one can to ease the other person’s suffering. As business leaders allow themselves to be guided by this desire, a more creative and sustainable way forward emerges. Pragmatic decisions still get made: employees who cannot improve are asked to leave, yet without the mercenary edge that often accompanies such decisions, without wanton damage to the psyche and integrity of an organization.

If we agree that compassionate leadership is desirable, then we must ask ourselves why it is in such short supply. The answer, quite simply, is that leaders often have so little compassion to give. This is not by any means a circular answer.

The elemental truth is that we can each only give what we have within us. That is to say, the person in your workplace who continually nitpicks the work of others and is impossible to please is also intensely self-critical and unforgiving. Likewise, the colleague who expresses incessant anger and frustration at the slightest provocation is also engaged in an exhausting and debilitating internal brawl. If either of these people endeavors to understand the perspective of another, that view alone will be insufficient to change his or her behavior. In other words, a person who is unable to see his or her own situation through the eyes of compassion will be uninclined to feel compassion upon understanding the struggles of another human being.

If you wish to become a compassionate leader, therefore, you must first find compassion for yourself. You must become an honest and scrupulous observer of your own thoughts and behaviors. In the privacy of your own mind, you must be willing to see clearly the interlopers and saboteurs who stand in the way of the patience and understanding you deserve so that you might be able to cultivate the capacity to offer kind and even-handed treatment to others.

The trouble is that many of us had an upbringing that affirmed us when we embraced ruthless self-criticism and perfectionism. If you are more successful than average, the odds are good that you grew up working incredibly hard and under tremendous scrutiny — you stayed up late, woke up early, and derided yourself if ever you fell short of your ambitious goals. The love you perceived yourself to have earned from parents, educators, and others in a position to hold you accountable as a reward for your achievements was so powerful that you became deeply devoted to the formula from which it sprang.

Now, as an accomplished adult, this is what you have to give, in turn, to those who work for you: the expectation that impossibly high standards will be achieved through austerity and struggle, lest love be withheld.

There is nothing wrong with high standards: without the burden of judgment, high standards fuel our dreams and inspire us to live greater and more impactful lives. The problem is that high standards coupled with childhood patterning that tells us love is contingent upon their achievement, invites punishment and alienation.

We can only truly be open to compassion for others if we have compassion for ourselves. The ability to walk in the shoes of another and to feel as they do, as Jeff Weiner wisely observes, has the potential to open our hearts to the painful feelings that person harbors. The secret to encountering those feelings with compassion rather than with judgment or contempt rests in our willingness to also develop compassion for our own vulnerability and struggle.

My intent is not to describe a linear cause-and-effect relationship. Let it be known to the perfectionists reading these words that it is unnecessary to first conquer self-judgment before attempting to find and demonstrate compassion toward other people. Insomuch as the human condition is defined by our quest for self-acceptance and self-love, we should expect the process of developing compassionate leadership to be iterative and untidy. What sets compassionate leaders apart is the depth of their devotion to maintaining an awareness of how their own internal resources define the quality and limits of what they are able to give, the firmness of their commitment to learn kindness toward themselves in the humble service of others.