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Compassionate Leadership

Why was management so difficult for me and for so many others?

When I look back on my career as a leader, I cringe thinking about my early days as a manager. I certainly was no leader. I literally had no idea what I was doing. The only examples of management or any kind of leadership I had were from men, domineering, top down and very conservative in style. I’m not criticizing and making a judgement, it just wasn’t me, but I was prepared to embrace it and put on a facade if that’s what it took to be successful.

If I could play it back to you now, you laugh and maybe even cry. I was the perfect example of why some women get a bad wrap as leaders. I was cold, overly direct, and harsh. Somedays I was downright mean. This was an act I putting on to show I was in charge; I was in control. Ha! I was 100% not in control. It was a total mess! I had people going out on stress leave, crying in the office, talking behind my back, and the more challenging the situation became, the harder I rode my team. “Why can’t you just do your work?” We were all frustrated beyond belief.

When I was given the opportunity to manage a team, a team I was once a part of, I was told, just remember your directs aren’t your friends, it’s going to be lonely and make sure you keep your emotions out of it. I was provided basic management principles and handed a team. I was inexperienced and clearly didn’t know the difference between being a manager and being a leader. I took the advice I was given and I was off and running. The group of people that had once been my peers and close friends, were now at arm’s length. I was the manager; I had the answer. Laughable, truly laughable, if only I could go back in time and talk to myself…

I was a terrible manager and a terrible human beign. I needed help, but instead of asking for it, I doubled down. I micro managed, tracked everything in spreadsheets and lacked empathy for the members of my team. I never stopped to listen and I certainly didn’t welcome anyone’s feedback.

I learned the hard way this style of management wasn’t going to work for me or my staff. I was following the guidance I read in the ‘how to’ management books, so why wasn’t it working?

I’d love to now tell you, I figured it all out and there was a happy ending. But alas, the happy ending came for my team when I left.

I was actually awarded employee of the year and several other accolades, which prompted me to seek new and better opportunities. I was a success. At least it looked like that on my resume, but if I was honest with myself, I didn’t feel very successful. I actually felt quite unsure of myself and I was about to venture out to a new company.

I was offered a very cool job at Microsoft, this was in the 90s, Microsoft really was the most amazing place to work. You got huge stock grants, nice offices, and big budgets. Life was good.

Only it really wasn’t.

I landed myself a very junior manager, hired fresh out of college to an engineering role and newly promoted. He was managing just like I had in my last role. It was terrible, I would come home crying, I hated going to work, I felt isolated and trapped. I eventually had to take a leave of absence.

It was that experience that really made me stop and reflect. Why was management so difficult for me and for so many others?  

I knew my manager at Microsoft had been a good engineering lead, he was a smart guy and talented, so why wasn’t he able to inspire or guide me or the rest of the team for that matter?

Growing up I had always been the leader in my circle of friends, I was the one that rallied the troops to do things, I had chaired clubs, coordinated large events, so why the trouble leading in a purely professional setting?

The bottom line, you have to put your heart into leadership, be authentic to who you are. I wasn’t able to manage people the same way the books and examples of other set for me. It didn’t feel natural. Once I realized I wanted to lead and inspire people in a more personal, emotional, and authentic way to how I am it all came together. Call it a light bulb moment.

I’m very expressive, I naturally show my emotions and believe it or not, I care deeply about other people. It was exhausting to operate the way I had been. I was trying to separate heart and emotions from leadership. Big, big mistake. This is now what I consider the secret sauce to being a successful team leader and my personal super power. I love to connect with people. Take the time to get to know the people, understand what’s important to them and how I can help them achieve their goals.

There are still some that would advocate that being compassionate or gentle with people in a leadership role is the same as being soft or weak and will ultimately undermine productivity.  Traditional leadership theory still suggests the best managers are those who are more analytical and make decision solely based on data.

However, I strongly believe if you accept that both feelings and emotions play an enormous role in driving employee engagement and human behavior, you will be more successful in inspiring and leading teams and organizations. I have seen how the repression of emotions greatly inhibits success, negatively impacts wellbeing, and makes it difficult, if not impossible to ignite productivity.

After all, who wants to follow someone that is harsh or lacking empathy. You can’t be persuasive when you are abrasive.

Feelings and emotions, determine our level of engagement in life, what motivates us and what we care about. If you want optimal human performance, the heart is the key. We’ve all heard the sayings, ‘you have to have heart’, ‘win hearts and minds’ and the flip side, ‘your heart isn’t in it’.

Negative emotions drain our energy and thereby adversely affect our performance.

What matters most to people is how they are made to feel by the organizations that employ them, and by the people who manage and lead them. So, demonstrate to those on your team that they are truly valued and appreciated. Provide them with opportunities to grow and to contribute at a higher level. Make people feel they matter. Focus on their needs, not on your needs. Do all these things and more knowing that it’s rarely an appeal to our minds that inspires most of our greatest achievements.

If your desire is to be a leader who attracts and retains the best people all-the-while producing truly uncommon but sustainable performance, then lead with your heart, show your passion, and be authentically you.

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