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A global pandemic, Depression-level unemployment, civil and political unrest – from New York to Barcelona to Hong Kong, it feels as if the world as we know it is faltering. Economies are unwinding; jobs are disappearing. Through it all, our spirit is being tested. Now more than ever, it’s imperative for leaders to demonstrate compassion.
Compassion is the quality of having positive intentions and real concern for others. Compassion in leadership creates stronger connections between people. It improves collaboration, raises levels of trust, and enhances loyalty. In addition, studies find that compassionate leaders are perceived as stronger and more competent.
As the tragedy and hardship of our current context unfold, companies are awakened to the greater value in caring about people’s wellbeing. At Potential Project, we have studied and written about the importance of compassion in leadership for years. Even more important, we’ve trained the leaders of global organizations in how to implement compassionate leadership.
Through this work, we’ve discovered a key component of compassionate leadership, something most other experts overlook: Compassion on its own is not enough. For effective leadership, compassion must be combined with wisdom.
By wisdom, we mean leadership competence, a deep understanding of what motivates people and how to manage them to deliver on agreed priorities. Leadership is hard. To be effective, it often requires pushing agendas, giving tough feedback, making hard decisions that disappoint people, and, in some cases, laying people off. Showing compassion in leadership can’t come at the expense of wisdom and effectiveness. You need both. Wise compassionate leadership is the ability to do hard things in a human way.
It’s important to understand that these styles or modes of leadership do not necessarily indicate permanent, hardwired characteristics of a leader, but more often are indicative of a particular mood or mindset or context that a leader is operating in.
In quadrant 1, at the top left, leaders care for people – which is great – but they tend to avoid the tough parts of leadership like giving hard feedback. In quadrant 3, bottom left, leaders are ineffective and indifferent, operating in a mode that is the opposite of mindful. Lacking both compassion and wisdom, these leaders appear to their followers as uncaring and unprofessional. In quadrant 4, at the bottom right, leaders are effectively executing on their business objectives, but have little compassion.
Finally, in quadrant 2, at the top right – wise compassion – leaders deliver the best results. Leaders operating in this mode are balancing concern for their people with the need to move their organizations forward in an efficient, productive manner. When tough action is needed, they get it done with genuine caring for people’s feelings and well-being.
To better understand wise compassionate leadership, we have gathered data from 15,000 leaders in more than 5,000 companies that span nearly 100 countries. (To gauge your own compassion as a leader and contribute to our data set, feel free to take this quick assessment.)
Through extensive data modeling, we have discovered a clear correlation between higher levels of wise compassion and promotability. In other words, the more wise compassion you practice as a leader, the faster and higher you will rise in the ranks. This is great news, a clear confirmation that we do well ourselves by doing good to others.
One of the most important revelations in our data was that having a regular mindfulness routine leads to increased wise compassion. This effect on leadership style likely results from the fact that mindfulness practice makes people more self-aware and more cognizant of the behaviors and emotions of others. With greater awareness and presence, leaders are more intentional in bringing wisdom and compassion to an issue.
Here are a few tips to better develop compassion and wisdom as components of your leadership style. If your wisdom is strong but you still need to develop more compassion, here are a few things you can do:
If your compassion is strong but you would like to increase your wisdom, here are a few helpful strategies: