When leaders face personal suffering, how do they respond? In my extensive experience coaching leaders, I've observed that many pile unreasonable expectations upon themselves, commonly leading to harsh self-judgement when they don’t meet them. At the same time, they put on a brave face as a front for their invulnerability. This tendency is especially pronounced when leaders confront external challenges while grappling with their own perceived inadequacies. In an effort to safeguard their reputation and avoid looking incompetent, they armour themselves with ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’, projecting these expectations onto others as well. In this article, I explore why compassion, including self-compassion, is critical in leadership.
Why have I included self-compassion as an essential quality in leadership? The reason is simple. While it may seem easier to exhibit compassion towards others, lacking self-compassion can hinder your ability to be authentically compassionate. It can give rise to underlying judgements that impede your capacity to be fully present for someone else when they need you to step up as their leader. Furthermore, as the saying goes, "Where you're judging others, you're judging yourself”. But the reverse is also true: where you're judging yourself, you're judging others. In either case, compassion plays a pivotal role in leadership, offering the space to be fully present, intentionally caring, and deeply committed to what's important. Compassion enables forgiveness and eliminates judgements, empowering people to be effective in pursuing their goals.
Where is the place for compassion in leadership?
In Human Being, a book written in the context of leadership, performance and effectiveness, Ashkan Tashvir writes the following about compassion as a way of Being: Compassion is the quality that compels you to intervene when someone is in pain or suffering and is a clear manifestation and demonstration of your care for others and humanity. It is the capacity to be with the suffering of another.
In other words, compassion leads to being fully and intentionally committed to what’s important to another human being who might be suffering. In the workplace, that might be an employee or a colleague. It’s the quality that drives us to intervene. We can only do that when we are willing to be consciously aware, present and connected to them.
There’s great power in developing a healthy relationship with compassion because it motivates us to support others. It makes us better leaders because it comes with care, and without care, nothing of importance can be achieved. The people you lead and support in their development need you to care so much that you bring your attention to what matters to them. That way, you can nurture and address whatever is necessary with the appropriate level of time, resources and attention.
The importance of self-compassion
What about our own discomfort and pain? How might it make a difference if we brought self-compassion rather than the piles of self-judgement and worry we experience when we tell ourselves we’re not measuring up to (sometimes self-imposed) standards?
What difference would it make to you as a leader if you also ascribed that same level of care and attention to your own suffering? Would you be more forgiving when you make a mistake? Would you be willing to admit your mistakes? And would that also make you more forgiving when others make a mistake? Self-compassion has a distinct place in your own self-growth. Why? Because without self-compassion, you will judge your mistakes so harshly that you will be less effective, as your attention and time are spent on the judgements rather than finding more effective ways to move forward. Where there is no self-compassion, there is no, or minimal, forward momentum.
Self-compassion is the seed for supporting others’ growth
By developing self-compassion, you can also extend the same level of care and attention to others, especially those you lead. Let me explain. As a leader, you are in the business of supporting others to develop their skills, abilities, personal development and growth. You’re also in the business of learning and development. Therefore, no matter which way you look at it, all leaders are in the business of supporting other humans in their concerns and navigating their learning journey, which can bring suffering. People never remain stagnant while under the care of a compassionate leader. When leaders demonstrate their care to a person on their team, they put themselves in that person’s shoes. This will enable them to open up, share their concerns and, ultimately, take ownership of their own growth.
Creating an environment that fosters learning and growth in others is a privileged position for leaders as you bear witness to the learning and growth of others. Compassion is one of the ways of Being that has the potential to promote and facilitate that learning and growth. Knowing and caring that others you’re leading might be experiencing fear, anxiety and vulnerability while they’re developing themselves requires a healthy level of authentic care and compassion so you’re moved and motivated to be with their discomfort and provide the support they need.
Growing yourself while you grow others
Have you ever noticed that when you’re silently piling on self-judgements due to perceived inadequacies, you’re less likely to open up and share them with others? These are your vulnerabilities, the things you’d rather others didn’t find out. Self-compassion will enable you to let down the walls and share authentically.
As you continue to develop yourself as a leader – because leadership development is an ongoing process – there will be times when you feel inadequate or ill-equipped to cope with the challenges. When this happens, ascribing care and compassion to yourself as you do to others will better equip you to deal with those challenges.
By growing yourself as a compassionate leader, you enable your people to be vulnerable by sharing their concerns and making requests for support. And when you demonstrate authentic care and compassion, your people are more likely to keep their promises and fulfil their commitments. Commitments that are left unfulfilled usually mean that there is a concern that hasn’t been addressed. It is less likely to mean that people are lazy or don’t care, which are common assumptions. Growing yourself as a compassionate leader will also foster compassion and self-compassion in those you lead, meaning you’ll develop people who demonstrate care and compassion to themselves and others. This is the epitome of a growth environment.
In my experience, leaders who judge themselves harshly often identify as perfectionists. And perfectionists have a tendency to procrastinate, which leads them to be ineffective. You can read more about this in my article, The Emerging Leaders Guide to Overcoming Procrastination and Leading with Purpose, where I discuss the importance of letting go of the desire to be perfect to move beyond procrastination and create opportunities for yourself and others.
Eight ways to foster self-compassion as a leader
Recognise when you need support and be vulnerable enough to ask for it.
Remember that you’re also a learner; bring compassion and forgiveness when you get something wrong.
Challenge your cognitive distortions when they arise, for example, when you tell yourself, “I’m a terrible leader and always will be”.
Declare more authentic opinions of yourself, such as, “I’m learning” and, “This is a new experience”, rather than piling on the “shoulds” and “musts”.
Keep your commitments realistic and ask for the support of your team rather than taking everything on your own shoulders.
Trust that your team will step up if given the autonomy to give things a go and bring compassion and forgiveness when they get it wrong.
Support others to keep their own commitments realistic.
Accept that mistakes are all part of learning and developing yourself and others and that being a demonstration of compassion starts with self-compassion.
Compassion, including self-compassion, is not a soft skill. It is a way of Being. And when we are BEING compassionate, we have the willingness to see others and support them to grow and thrive. As a leader, you are responsible for the growth of others. You can only support others to access self-compassion in their learning journey if you practise self-compassion with yourself. If you want to learn more about how to lead your team with compassion, practise self-compassion and lead with purpose, you can follow me here.