Be A Good Leader, Be A Good Person: It’s Not A Binary Choice

When it’s done right, leadership is hard work.

There’s always the delicate balance of caring for people while getting important things accomplished. The two are not at all incompatible, but there’s still the balance.

And it always occurs in the context of “what’s happening now.” Today’s context includes a global pandemic. Economic turmoil. Civil, political, and social unrest. And a multitude of other things that influence people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Leaders don’t have the luxury of waiting for “the perfect time” to do their jobs. And the smart ones likely agree with Abraham Lincoln’s observation that “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

No matter what a leader does, somewhere someone will be unhappy. The leader must forge ahead.

But here’s a happy reality: being a tough-minded leader and being a good person is not a binary choice.

That reality—along with a wealth of practical and expert advice—is emphasized in Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way.

Two of the book’s co-authors sat down for a conversation in which they offer leadership tips you can put to immediate use. Marissa Afton—a partner at Potential Project, a global research, leadership development and consulting firm—has led culture change initiatives at companies like Cisco, Accenture, Bloomberg, and Eli Lilly. Moses Mohan, also a Potential Project partner, blends neuroscience and behavioral psychology to help leaders maximize their impact.

Rodger Dean Duncan: What do you see as the top two or three “hard things” that seem to challenge many leaders?

Marissa Afton: Today’s leaders are arguably facing the hardest working climate we’ve ever experienced. There are two main types of “hard things” that today’s leaders have to manage. First, there are the standard stressors, such as executing layoffs and managing performance issues. But leaders today also have to deal with a slew of more “human” challenges, like navigating the uncertainty of the workplace, being transparent about not having all the answers, and supporting people in the office even with the myriad personal pressures and ramifications that remote and hybrid work present.

Duncan: The crux of your approach to leadership is what you call “wise compassion”—doing hard things in a human way. How can a well-intentioned leader learn to put that into daily practice if it’s not already a default behavior?

Moses Mohan: Practicing wise compassion as a leader simply means bringing more humanity to your workplace and to your interactions with your people. This habit can be developed by implementing a number of different practices:

  • Adopt a regular mindfulness practice. Our data show that having a regular mindfulness habit leads to increased discernment and leadership competence. A 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 about bringing wisdom and compassion to any challenge.
  • Check your intention: Make a habit of understanding your intention before you meet with others. Put yourself in their shoes. With their reality in mind, ask yourself: How can I best be of benefit to this person or these people today? A Chinese proverb says, “There is no way to compassion; compassion is the way.” Asking how you can be of benefit to others is a “way to compassion.” Answering this question before you meet people will help to create a more human interaction focused on others’ growth and development.
  • Practice candid transparency: As leaders, it is our responsibility to provide the guidance people need, even if it is difficult for them to hear. When a team member is underperforming, be candid and tell her or him what to work on. If you conceal your concerns in an attempt to be kind, people will neither understand expectations nor benefit from your wisdom. Because of this, concealing tough criticism is not kind—it is misleading. Instead, being clear is kind. Be direct and transparent.

Duncan: What are some of the common mindsets that leaders need to unlearn so they can be more effective in holding people accountable for top performance?

Afton: We see a critical distinction between management and leadership. Management is about managing others. Leadership is about seeing and hearing others, setting a direction, and then letting go of trying to control the outcome. A core principal discussed in our book is the need for leaders to unlearn traditional management and relearn being human.

If you want to be a good leader, the following are a few points to consider: First, nobody wants to be managed. Second, who you are and how you show up are more important than what you know or how smart you are. Finally, though perhaps most importantly, leadership is about developing others and enabling meaningful and trusting human relationships.

Regardless of hierarchies and power structures within a company, we are all first and foremost human beings. Simply put, we want to connect on a human level with other humans. However, many leaders have been formally trained in management skills, such as setting direction, managing plans, and solving problems, operating based on scripts and models. While some of these tactics and skills are very helpful for certain challenges, when it comes to compassionate leadership, it is important to move past these habits so we can show up with others, human-to-human.

Duncan: How do you explain the differences between empathy, sympathy, and compassion?

Mohan: The words empathy and compassion, as well as sympathy, are sometimes used interchangeably. And while they all represent positive, altruistic traits, they don’t refer to the same experience. The major difference relates to how much we understand and connect with another person’s suffering, and how willing we are to take action to help them move out of it.

Sympathy is the least “engaged” of these feelings. If you’re feeling sympathetic, it means you don’t totally understand or resonate with another’s experience and aren’t particularly motivated to help them through it.

Empathy signifies a more visceral understanding of another person’s experience. When we feel empathy, we feel with the other person. Often it means we’ll take on their feelings as our own. Empathy is a human instinct. It isn’t, however, generally associated with action.

Compassion means we have a good understanding of what the other person is experiencing and a willingness to act. The addition of action to feeling is what sets compassion apart and makes it the most important state for leaders to strive towards.

Duncan: As an example of an organizational culture that does a good job of emphasizing compassionate leadership, what is a company that comes to mind?

Afton: We often point to Microsoft as one of the companies that is getting this right. With a huge workforce of 144,000 employees, they’re able to report impressive financials while still maintaining a strong culture and a deep sense of community. When we look at Satya Nadella’s leadership and also the work of Kathleen Hogan, the CHRO, we see an example of what this new leadership looks like: combining a drive for high performance with a drive for high care of employees.

Two major things have been the cornerstone of Nadella’s leadership: maintaining a growth mindset and a focus on empathy. With a growth mindset, you have to be okay with being wrong, and willing to let go of things you’ve previously held on tightly to. The Microsoft team has been good about letting go of things that didn’t work well for them in the past so they can make space for new ideas and innovations that will fuel success in the future.

With a focus on empathy, there is a vulnerable quality that allows us to see and connect with each other as human beings, to feel what others are feeling and support them through it. And Satya has really brought that into the culture of Microsoft.

Duncan: What role does “busyness” play in a person’s inclination to practice compassionate leadership?

Mohan: There’s a phrase we refer to often—busyness kills your heart, and we mean that in a metaphorical and a physiological way. It also kills our ability to do hard things in a human way. One of the most important practices for leaders is to develop what we call a warm heart, which means a genuine care and concern for their people. Not only will it help leaders feel better, but it will help the people they lead feel better too.

Leaders can practice compassion only with a full heart and a clear mind. So, if they’re expending all of their energy simply “being busy,” then there is no room left to practice compassionate leadership.

Duncan: You say that confrontations are positive. How so?

Afton: This may prove to be a controversial perspective, but at its core there is much truth to it. Confrontation can be an emotionally loaded word for many, but it doesn’t need to be. Having the courage to willingly approach confrontations is one of the most important skills of wise, compassionate leaders.

When well-managed, confrontations are vital to increasing understanding, enhancing innovation, and implementing cultural change. To better develop wise and compassionate leadership, it’s important to recognize the fact that confrontations in and of themselves are not inherently negative. They become negative only when handled in unskillful ways—or when not handled at all. Confrontations, at their core, are merely expressions of two diverse points of views. When we enter confrontations with courage and an open mind, we can learn and grow. In this way, confrontation can be seen as an opportunity for our personal development. Opposing views create new thinking, which leads to progress and innovation.

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