What a Special Forces Commander Taught Me About Compassionate Leadership
How great leaders find the balance between competence and compassion.
I didn’t expect the topic of compassion and empathy to come up in my conversation with Chris.
Chris was a Green Beret and a combat commander — he was in the Army for decades. He’s literally advised presidents of countries and led special operations units across three continents (that I know of). And here he is telling me why compassion is a critical element of leadership.
I was in the military for 15 years myself. I was in combat and led teams across three continents, too. I was never in the types of elite units that Chris was, but I did work with a lot of them. And the word “compassion” never crossed my mind.
How does Chris, an SF operator, define and describe this side of leadership? What is the connection between being empathetic and being directive? How do we bridge this gap and how do we know where to strike a balance?
Competence / Compassion Model
The leadership concept that Chris introduced me to was the spectrum of competence and compassion. In how he described it to me, every leader needs to have both competence and compassion as cornerstones. These are his foundational tenets of effective, genuine leadership.
Why this exists on a spectrum, though, is because we need to be able to flex and adapt how much of each we bring to the team. Depending on the context, we may need to bring in more compassion to connect and be real, support and motivate the team. Depending on the context, we may need to bring in more competence to direct the team and get practical about next steps and outcomes.
The glue that ties this all together is clarity. It’s not enough to be competent and compassionate, we must show and communicate these qualities in a clear, compelling way. Clear competence builds trust in how the team is executing its mission. Clear compassion builds trust in why the team is doing it.
I thought about what Chris shared with me about these concepts, and I visualized it as two counterweights of competence and compassion on a seesaw of clarity and context.