Compassionate leaders

Compassionate leaders

“…in a recent survey of people affected by the pandemic, 90% of participants felt such leaders improved their work-life balance and job satisfaction. And 70% of those who worked for compassionate leaders were more productive than those who didn’t.” Financial Times 12May20.

Compassion is not a soft option. It takes more effort than brutality. To be compassionate involves putting yourself in the place of another person, with all the creativity and patience that demands. Compassionate people aren’t simply good people, they participate in the lives of others, share their successes, rescue their failures. They try to understand what makes another tick. They practice the theory of lifelong learning, and help others to do so as well. In short, they care.

On the whole, women are more compassionate than men both as leaders and as human beings. Traditionally, they have nurtured and grown the young while men went hunter-gathering, clubbing anything that got in their way. The roles have changed, of course. Today men nurture and grow as much as women and women earn the family’s living equally as men. The old stereotypes still linger in the minds of many. But that has changed a lot in the last five years.

Why should anyone be a compassionate leader? Because making life better for others is the noblest thing a human can do. And failing to do so when an opportunity presents itself is the worst. Our natural selfish inclination is a survival kit, essential at birth, often useful during life, but primitive at all times. If we want life to be better than primitive we have to adopt a behaviour that is not yet accepted as an essential attitude, let alone a consistent practice.

That behaviour is “I must give more than I hope to get”. Our lives have become so transactional that many will ask ‘why?’ The answer is that paradoxically doing so always ends up with the giver receiving more than s/he gave – provided always that is not why the giver gave. So being compassionate is noble and rewarding for the giver as well as the receiver. But how does compassion lead to better performance and greater productivity at work? Of course, it won’t do so for every single person because there are always some misfits about.

To hammer the misfits, you have to behave brutally. While this may, on a very transient and temporary basis, make the misfits work harder, the culture so created will be a spoiled one for the rest, who will become demotivated. Since ‘the rest’ are the vast majority of the workforce you will be destroying your business for the sake of a few misfits. One way out of the dilemma, obviously, is to get rid of the misfits. Another way is to devote resources to cure them. If you are planning to take this approach make sure you can identify which misfits are curable.

Not all of them are. Governors of prisons learn to identify which prisoners will go straight when let out and which will re-offend. A certain class of prisoner is classified as recidivist. Their lifestyle has become criminal, often in a very specific way, and they will be impossible to reform. Roughly half of the misfits in your business will fall into the category of recidivist, albeit not criminal. Pass them on to professional care if you can. Devote your time to them only if you have plenty of it and are aiming for the highest personal awards. You will probably be disappointed.

But not everyone is either a misfit or a fully compliant employee. We are all made of good and evil and even the best intentioned and motivated can be lazy, somewhat dishonest, moody and just bloody-minded at times. This is where the compassionate leader scores highest. S/he will read the moods and depressions of their employees, will make sense of the emotional rhythms and will devote proportionate time to handling their colleagues’ development. I know because I was fortunate to have a mentor in business who did all this for me.

Not only that, he taught me how to handle a boss, too. Without him I would probably have failed. It was his mentoring and coaching of me that persuaded me to take it up as a full time occupation when I retired from the business, parts of which both he and I ran. So what made the difference between a good or kind boss and a compassionate one? It wasn’t a laxness or generosity that allowed me to do what I wanted. It wasn’t an indulgence of my quirky management style, though he never criticised that, even when he thought it was bizarre.

It was that he cared. Which is why he was a compassionate leader.

And compassionate leaders succeed.