compassionate leadership while talking to employeesNo one really wants to think back to the darkest days of the pandemic, in 2020 when all aspects of our lives were disrupted. However, a crisis offers an opportunity for acute learning (or failure). So, I was intrigued when I heard the suggestion that the pandemic might have changed leaders for the better (and perhaps has led to more compassionate leadership). In a webinar, the Institute for Coaching shared profound insights on leadership collected in a report published under the title “Leading with Humanity.” In this report, 33 executives from a broad range of industries reflected on how the pandemic changed their values and affected their leadership style.

Here is a summary of my takeaways:

Organizations are results-focused. Leaders are trained to focus on measurable results whether they are in the for-profit or non-profit sector. They had grown to see people as a tool to deliver results. However, during the pandemic, the results were in question. The path to staying alive was unclear. At that point, it was now impossible to ignore people. Humanity got a promotion during the pandemic.

Humans need acceptance. When they are accepted for who they are, if we understand what they need, people are more likely to follow along on the journey through a crisis. By leaning in and really being with people, leaders have discovered loyalty. People follow those leaders. An intentional focus on individual needs drives organizational resilience.

Impact of the Pandemic on Leaders

The report also highlighted that leaders shifted their values during the pandemic. Values are often influenced by early life experiences and don’t change much over a lifetime. However, the experience (and trauma) of being a leader during the pandemic had a profound impact on leadership values. 

There is a renewed focus on relationships created at work. Work relationships are different from personal and family relationships because they exist with a shared purpose around the organization’s mission. Those work relationships can be very fulfilling. They also endure much pressure. Having strong work connections requires having strong relationships so we can weather crises at work. 

The pandemic exposed leaders who were uncomfortable with authentic personal relationships. Relationships based solely on chasing business results induce fear. During the pandemic, there was no roadmap. People had to trust each other to find a way forward during the crisis. Relationships based on fear didn’t withstand the pandemic crisis. This is one of the reasons for the Great Resignation.

Employee Well-being

Before the pandemic, wellness programs were often an afterthought in the HR budget. They were not considered a strategic priority that drives performance and competitive advantage. During the pandemic, we discovered that work is a critical contribution to well-being. When many started working from home, we realized that well-being at home and well-being at work were linked. We now also are attuned to the fact that well-being has to be designed into the work itself.

Characteristics of Compassionate Leadership

Most organizations have not been human enough until the pandemic gave leaders a chance to change. Leaders discovered compassion. Compassionate leaders set themselves apart by being in a space of integrity and presence alongside their people. They are aware of how their actions impact others. 

Compassion has a spillover effect on others in the workplace with positive effects. When leaders are compassionate, organizations have more positive work cultures, become better able at handling conflict, and have more civility. But leading with compassion is not weak, states Margaret Moore who spoke at length during the webinar.

Compassionate leadership means taking on a wide range of views, making sure people feel heard, and nonetheless being decisive about making decisions. Leadership is still required. Compassionate leaders add space for people to show up as they are. When this is done well, people feel they are part of something meaningful. They feel connected and want to stay.

How do we know if we are Compassionate Leaders? 

The research identified five fundamentals of compassionate leadership:

  1. Expanding awareness – this requires noticing and observing what’s happening with people and with self. Mindfulness practice or journaling are tools to expand awareness.
  2. Putting relationships first – relationships come from authenticity by showing vulnerability without putting into question the leader’s ability to lead. This is a tough balancing act for leaders. 
  3. Supporting well-being – this starts with physical and emotional self-care for all including leaders. We understand that well-being provides growth and the social capital required to perform at work. 
  4. Integrating diversity – During the pandemic, diversity and equity got real. It helped leaders be more empathetic towards employees. Truly seeking diverse opinions provides conflicting views and information. This creates uncomfortable spaces. We need to create spaces where it is acceptable to be uncomfortable.
  5. Establishing an agile culture – the first 4 elements are the enablers of an agile culture. Organizations are not machines but are made of human beings in relationships. This humanity provides the creativity and energy to work through the problems of our times.

How to get started with Compassionate Leadership?

The transformation is supported by a 3-steps process:

  1. Understand what was learned during the pandemic. Relive the acute phase of the pandemic with a reflective stance, harvesting the positive shifts as well as processing the pain and suffering we all experienced. 
  2. Honestly assess how you are doing on the 5 fundamentals. This is about self-awareness.
  3. Lean into the need for change. Grow by expanding around our blind spots. Meg Moore recommends getting a coach to support this work. Good coaches have the skills required to support the transformation.

Helping ourselves grow is one of the calls of being a leader. It also impacts our lives, not just at work. Compassionate leadership calls us to be a better parent, friend, and leader.