15th June 2020

On compassionate leadership: supporting the whole person to support others

Before coronavirus, we weren’t really in the habit of seeing colleagues as ‘whole people’.

During the 9-5, we interacted with ‘Work Rebecca’ or ‘HR Peter’ or ‘Sam from the team downstairs’.

If we’re truly honest, we didn’t give much time or thought to people beyond their role in the day-to-day running of the organisation. Our time to find out more was limited to a quick chat about someone’s weekend on the way to get lunch.

A number of positive initiatives took off in organisations to encourage people to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work – from sharing more about one’s cultural heritage to supporting flexible working for parents and carers – but lockdown and video calls mean we are presented with more than just Sam from downstairs, HR Peter or Work Rebecca.

Through video conferencing we see Work Rebecca as Rebecca the homeowner with a bookcase packed with books on art history and the solar system, suggesting she is Rebecca the autodidact. A busy family planner in the background reveals Rebecca’s responsibility as the stand-in teacher and a deliverer of community food parcels. A rubber block in the background hints at Rebecca the yogi. Small voices squabbling in the background point to Rebecca the peacekeeper and expert negotiator.

Understanding that Rebecca is more than just Work Rebecca, humanises her and this in turn makes leaders more compassionate and understanding. Compassionate leaders are better able to see where adjustments can be accommodated. Compassionate are leaders of productive and happy employees.

While it is difficult to find the positives in the situation we find ourselves in, it has been heartening to see an increase in team check-ins, catch-ups and wellbeing one-to-ones over the past few months. Leaders are being pushed to prioritise this. As a result, they are getting a privileged insight into the lives of the people they work with. Employees are more willing to share what’s going on for them.

This is great. But it’s also a lot for one person to handle alone.

When people share what’s going on in their lives, it’s hard for the receivers of this information to know what to do with the associated emotions. Emotions are porous and when twenty people share their stories with you, even though it is your responsibility and you might be happy to do it, it is still a lot to process.

Therapists have their own therapists to share and offload, coaches too – leaders don’t typically have a support structure or that specific training in place to help them.

I hope that this will gradually shift over time.

Of course it’s true that some people are naturally compassionate and empathetic and some are less so. However, whether or not you have a natural ability to be compassionate, is almost irrelevant: it’s going to become a vital skill and skills can be learned and they can also be developed, with support. They also need to be maintained with support.

It really is worth it. By being a compassionate leader, you will build trusting relationships with engaged colleagues. You will encourage a greater degree of collaboration and help to create a positive environment in which people feel valued and respected. Ultimately, it means a more successful organisation. It goes without saying but it also means adding another string to your leadership bow.

Becoming a compassionate leadership requires support. You do need to be honest and this means expressing your true feelings which might make you feel somewhat vulnerable.

Coaching provides a safe space to process difficult emotions. Many leaders are expected to be strong for others and manage their own disappointments, personal crises.

It’s incredibly difficult to be pragmatic and motivated when they too are scared, when they are exhausted from juggling home schooling and being a full time leader navigating an organisation through unknown waters. Being exhausted makes you more at risk of being triggered. Being ‘easily triggered’ is not something leaders want to be known for.

We have to be realistic. It is not appropriate for leaders to say, ‘Enough about you! Let’s talk about me.’ It’s also not acceptable to expect leaders to continue on without support.

Coaching can help.

In a coaching setting, it’s okay to cry, feel lost and share complex emotions.

This kind of coaching is not about performance and it’s not therapy where you are required to confront your past in depth. Read more about this in my article A Hazy Notion.

The old adage, ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ holds true. By caring for yourself through coaching, you put yourself in a stronger position from which to lead and care for colleagues. I want leaders to feel it is okay to need support. Leaders are people, not superheros.

If you want to share your principles for compassionate leadership, or share examples of how you are caring for yourself in small ways – like going for a walk before a difficult video call, I’d love to see them, so please leave them in the comments below.

So if you want to improve your own leadership abilities, enhance your support structure and develop as a leader through coaching, please do get in touch.