At a recent conference I attended, compassion was noted as a key characteristic of strong leaders. This is consistent with growing dialogue globally around the need for leadership which demonstrates greater compassion. I sometimes get asked how compassionate leadership can be cultivated. For me, the most significant step to becoming a more compassionate leader is to look inwards. To be compassionate leaders, we must be compassionate people. To be more compassionate to others we must begin by being compassionate to ourselves.
Kindness Over Judgement
Self-compassion involves giving ourselves the care we need when we suffer. One of the leading researcher’s in the subject, Kirstin Neff, believes self-compassion consists of three central components: self-kindness versus self-judgment, common humanity versus isolation, and mindfulness versus overidentiﬁcation (Neff & Knox, 2016).
Self-compassion is acknowledging that you will get it wrong sometimes. By acknowledging this about yourself, it makes it easier to recognise and accept that others will too. If you have been told you are a leader who is hard on other people, chances are you are pretty hard on yourself. Often high achievers have perfectionist tendencies. They do not accept failure in themselves and, as a result, they cannot tolerate it in others. Self-compassion is a great antidote to perfectionism.
Compassion Doesn’t Mean Less Achievement, It Means Less Burnout
Being more compassionate is not about setting different, softer goals or not reaching for greater heights. Research shows that people who practice self-compassion are equally as motivated. They just give themselves a break when they get it wrong. This helps preserve their ability to be resilient and supports their psychological well-being. Unsurprisingly, self-compassion has been linked to lower levels of burnout.
Our Biggest Collective Fear is Failure
Mindfulness allows you to recognise how you feel when things don’t go well, to sit with that feeling and be kind to yourself. Internally, we all believe we are not good enough in one way or another. When things go badly or we get something wrong, we feel this inner fear has been confirmed. Self-compassion allows us to meet disappointment with kindness rather than criticism. It makes it easier to accept what has happened and allows us to move forward and try again. This helps foster our connections with others. If we can share when we suffer or are disappointed our relationships both in and out of work improve.
Compassion Enables Courage
We are more courageous when we practice self-compassion. We give ourselves permission to take risks knowing we can permit ourselves to fail. The best leaders are courageous in the decisions they make and open about their mistakes. This behaviour is enabled by their ability to be compassionate to themselves when they get it wrong.
Compassionate leadership is not a tool in a management box. It’s about embodying compassion. When you are truly compassionate, it resonates from within you. You don’t “practice” compassionate leadership, you live it.
If you have ambitions to be a more compassionate leader begin by asking yourself: How can I be kinder to myself today? Cultivating that inner muscle of self-compassion will make you the leader and person you aim to be.
You can watch Kirstin Neff discuss self-compassion in greater detail in this video:
Neff, K. D., & Knox, M. C. (2016). Self-Compassion Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8 ck