I recently had the honour of speaking at the Royal Roads University Leadership Conference 2017, in beautiful Victoria, BC. My presentation, Compassion: Building Connection, Building Leadership, was focused on the role of compassion in building relationships and communication in leadership. I've had several people wanting to learn more about this topic so I have converted my speaking notes in order to share with you. Please enjoy, and I'd love to hear your stories of compassionate leadership.
With my background in nursing and healthcare I have been privileged to share in the human experience with many others, during every stage of life, from birth until death. During the times that I’ve been fortunate to sit with those at the end of their life I have heard the stories of how spending time with loved ones and helping others have been the keys to a happy life. A study done by Stanford’s Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education asked 500 people two questions, “What brings you fulfillment?” and “If you only had three days to live, what would you spend your time doing?” The answers given within this study were the same as what I heard from my dying patients, being with loved ones and helping others. I share this because intuitively we know that a connection with others is the most profound and meaningful component of our lives, and that compassion IS connection.
As the people of this world become increasingly interconnected there is a central need for this type of interdependency and connection. Compassion, which is grounded in relationship and relatedness, is essential for our ability to work with others, and for others. A commitment to compassionate leadership enhances our understanding, collaboration, and respect within our relationships, ultimately revealing deeper opportunities for meaningful change and impact.
Despite this innate wisdom, compassion is often misunderstood and considered a “soft” skill, and not of particular value in our workplaces and communities. However, there is increasing research emerging from leading academic institutes from around the world demonstrating that compassion, like any skill, can be fostered. It is understood that compassion is integral to awareness, being present, creating respectful and trusting relationships, and understanding the perspectives of others, all, important qualities of a good leader.
In order to examine some of the benefits of compassionate leadership, it’s important to understand what compassionate leadership actually is. Often, when people think of compassion what comes to mind is empathy. Empathy is the ability to share in, and understand, another person’s experiences and emotions. But compassion includes the ability to empathize with others, while being willing to act in response to the person’s feelings. Compassionate leaders are those that value and nurture empathy within themselves and their followers as well as take action to find out what matters to people and to ease struggle. In this room today, and in every other room, there is someone enduring some sort of pain. Compassionate leaders know this, and move to do something about it.
We know that compassion is embedded in altruism, but it’s important to note that, ultimately, while compassion serves others, it serves you as well. New research and conversations are stimulating new thinking about what we know about human motivation. This research is showing the power of compassion for productivity and creation of successful outcomes. Essentially, compassionate leaders are more effective leaders. Compassion inspires loyalty, trust, and engagement. People who feel that their leader genuinely cares for them are much more willing to go the extra mile in their work.
Marriott International seems to know this well. With over 6000 properties in 112 countries it would be easy to overlook the needs of people in such a huge organization. However, that is not the case with Marriot. On top of continually developing a positive work culture focused on opportunity, Marriot goes the extra mile to practice compassion. When the US economy went into recession post 9/11 employees hours were being cut, putting them at risk of losing their health insurance. In response, Bill Marriot waived the 30-hour-per-week requirement, stating, “When you are in a tough situation like that, if you put your people first, they will never forget it”. The result is a turnover rate much lower than the industry average, which obviously, translates into business success.
We know that we will be more effective leaders if we practice compassion. People will want to work hard and to stick with us, people feel valued and respected. But there is another important piece to compassion, and that is the contribution to our own purpose and meaning. Mitch Albom, in Tuesdays with Morrie, recounted this thought from his dying 78-year-old sociology professor, “So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they are busy doing things they think are important. This is because they are chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to the community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”
Studies have shown that compassion is fundamental to our sense of purpose and to our social connection with others, and perhaps most interestingly, that compassion is an inborn characteristic. A series of experiments demonstrated that infants, too young to have learned the rules of social interaction, will try to be helpful when observing another in need. Building on this, brain imaging studies show that neural regions that are active when experiencing happiness are “firing” when we are participating in acts of helping others. We are wired for compassion, it makes us fulfilled and contributes to our sense of purpose.
Compassion is a fundamental human trait, and our role as leaders is to model compassionate leadership and encourage the development of compassionate people. The actions of compassionate leaders fundamentally change our environments, they create community. Compassionate leadership is not separate from ‘getting things done’ or ‘professionalism’. It is an acknowledgement of our shared humanity. Through compassion we are able to shift the focus within our organizations and communities from one that is solely motivated by chastising errors and only responding when things go wrong, to one that forgives, while highlighting what is going right. People want to contribute because they know they are valued and respected as professionals and as individuals. They know they are part of something bigger. They are part of community that helps members, both when struggling and when thriving.
An example of compassion contributing to community occurred last year in my home province of Alberta. On May 1st, 2016 a wildfire began to the SW of Fort McMurray. Two days later, as the fire burned out of control, it prompted the evacuation of more than 88,000 people. The fire spread across 590,000 hectares and destroyed more than 2400 homes and buildings. It is the costliest disaster in Canadian history, and the impact on the residents of Fort McMurray and the surrounding area has been incalculable. The reaction of Canadians was extraordinary. Support in the form of personnel, equipment, and money poured in from all parts of the country. In fact, the response by Canadians resulted in $102 million donated to the Canadian Red Cross, a record for domestic disasters. Canadians came together, in community and compassion, to support those in need.
We know, from research and practical examples, that compassionate leadership enhances understanding, connection, and respect within our relationships, creating opportunities for the creation of environments that are supportive and productive. However, compassionate leadership is not something that happens by accident, it requires active awareness and nurturing on a daily basis. It is the responsibility of everyone. As I said before, there is always pain and struggle in the room. I invite you to explore this, “What are you willing to do to practice compassionate leadership in your home, your workplace, and the community in which you live?” Through leadership you have the opportunity to create a future that is more compassionate than the past.
I’d like to leave you with the following by Margaret Wheatley. For me, and I hope for you, it will leave you inspired to explore compassion in your own leadership practice.
Ask “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?” Keep asking.
Notice what you care about.
Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.
Talk to people you know.
Talk to people you don’t know.
Talk to people you never talk to.
Be intrigued by the differences you hear.
Expect to be surprised.
Treasure curiosity more than certainty.
Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.
Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.
Know that creative solutions come from new connections.
Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know.
Real listening always brings people closer together.
Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.
Rely on human goodness. Stay together.