I remember reading an interview with CEO of LinkedIn Jeff Weiner. He was talking about his evolution as a leader. His “aha” moment had come early in his career. Weiner’s manager had been frustrated with the performance of one of his employees. To express his annoyance, this manager would make passive-aggressive jokes at the team member’s expense, demoralizing him repeatedly in front of his colleagues. Weiner addressed the issue with the manager, which was bold and courageous given he wasn’t in a position of power then. The story took me back to my beginnings in Corporate America.
I’m often asked which leader in my career has had the biggest impact on me. The fact is, I’ve learned from each and every one. Some were stronger than others, but the lessons have always been many.
I had the great fortune of starting my career at IBM, and they had an incredibly progressive philosophy (still do). They intentionally built a culture based on shared beliefs about IBM’s place in the world and how to act to achieve it. One of their core values was “respect for the individual, for their rights and dignity.” These weren’t just words on a wall; every employee from the bottom up walked the talk or didn’t make it at IBM.
This principle would guide me throughout my career.
Over the years, I’ve learned when people adopt “respect for the individual,” traits like honesty, transparency, thoughtfulness, decisiveness, self-awareness, the ability to apologize for mistakes, empathy, and compassion organically arise from that core belief. These attributes are necessary not only to build a thriving culture but also to sustain it. In fact, a study by Jonathan Haidt of New York University shows that the more employees look up to their leaders and are moved by their compassion, the more loyal they become to their leader.
The Times They Are a Changin’
Lately there’s a strategy catching steam in business: compassionate leadership. At the very basic level, compassionate leadership is when leaders inspire loyal, dedicated, passionate employees by being loyal, dedicated, passionate leaders. What a concept, right? So why then do some leaders struggle to get this right? There’s no one answer because people are different, but in my experience when these traits don’t come naturally, leaders need to consciously work at demonstrating them. This is a much easier task when a company is running smoothly. The challenge is demonstrating these traits during stressful times, and that’s when people tend to revert back to where they’re most comfortable. But trust me: I haven’t encountered one leader who doesn’t want to lead really well. It’s the greatest responsibility we have.
Leaders come with all different strengths. Leadership teams are generally a combination of introverts and extroverts, rule followers and risk-takers, feelers and thinkers, those who inspire during transformational times and those who are more task-oriented, those who are direct communicators and those who have soaring rhetorical styles when they speak. All these qualities are necessary for a business to function really well.
As a business goes through highs and lows, it’s a good strategy to evaluate the moment honestly, and elevate the qualities you need during that time.
Remember, employees are looking for their leaders to set the tone during times of uncertainty. They need to know their leaders have their backs. They need to feel inspired and motivated to climb each hill. More than that, they need to trust their leaders are beside them every step of the way. Leaders who are naturally empathetic, comfortable around people and who can communicate bad news with just the right amount of optimism are the ones you want front and center.
This doesn’t mean the rest of the leadership team should lock themselves away in their offices. We need all of management to rise to the occasion in their own authentic manner. Employees are not a monolithic group so different leadership styles are not only necessary but welcome. The key is engagement! Build an environment of respect, trust and support in which compassion and determination compels us all to thrive in tough times.
In the long-term, my advice to strengthening leadership skills: Really get to know your employees—personally and professionally. Learn to listen. The relationship between leaders and employees ought to be quid pro quo. Be honest and update employees in as close to real-time as possible; the more information they have, the more confident they’ll feel in you as a leader and in the success of the company. Apologize when you get it wrong. Have the self-awareness to recognize your weaknesses, and ask for help from your peers and your employees when necessary. Inject fun and humor into every work day. Above all, respect the individual, their rights and dignity.
Compassionate leadership is about building strong relationships, developing others and making decisions that lead to the best outcomes. Remember: how you engage with your teams will either strengthen or weaken your reputation as a leader. Work with your peers and go for great!