The Compassionate Leader

Compassionate leaders aren’t wimps; they make the tough calls, too

I’ve been faced with several situations in the past few weeks that required compassionate leadership.

A few hours after our walk yesterday when this picture was taken, Grace had a seizure, her second one in two days. It’s easy to want to help someone you care deeply about. What about people and situations where you are frustrated and angry? Do you have the same eagerness for compassion?

As I’ve worked through these interactions, I’ve come to appreciate that compassion takes many forms. And knowing when and how to offer the right kind is a tricky balance.

The dictionary defines compassion as “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.”

It’s easy to have compassion for someone you like, for someone who you care about, for someone you truly want to help. It’s not so easy when you’re frustrated, irritated, or downright angry with the other person, a person who you may feel has created their own misfortune. Especially on those occasions in the workplace, we have a desire to ‘win’ or ‘come out on top’ so instead of helping, we actually say or do things that drive an annoying co-worker down. We don’t admit or acknowledge, sometimes don’t even realize, that’s what we’re doing. But we want our story told. We want to be right.

True leaders are seeking the higher good for all, working to alleviate the suffering, not exasperate it. That’s why some people confuse being nice with being compassionate.

However, we must recognize that soft-pedaling with the sole objective of being kind, in absence of dealing with the real issue, does not work, either. A compassionate leader also deals with reality in an honest way, even if the message will be painful or difficult to hear. We frequently associate compassion with a kind word to soothe, or perhaps providing infinite opportunities for a problem to “get fixed.” Going too slow, being unnecessarily gentle, or doing nothing when action is needed, is not being compassionate at all. It’s being a wimp. And it doesn’t help anyone, including the person who has created the problem.

This Saturday, I’ll be presenting to a professional group and they left the topic open for me. I offered this title: “Graceful Leadership, Building Respectful Relationships.” I chose this for several reasons. One of the individuals that invited me to speak is a regular reader and admirer of this blog. It’s so uplifting when I receive one of her emails that tells about how a particular post resonated with her and how she put it to use in her work. Because the blog content appeals to her, and of course it appeals to me(!), I decided it made sense to focus on one of my main themes that I write about, respectful relationships.

When I think about the attributes of respect–and respectful interactions–compassion is at the top.

So it’s with a bit of irony that I’ve been faced with these current situations, testing my ability to strike this fine line between kindness and toughness. As I prepare for Saturday’s workshop, I am reminded of how difficult this is.

Reflecting upon my own abilities, I realize that one of my challenges is to be clear and direct when I see a problem surfacing. My patience and the “kindness” side of compassion lingers a bit longer than would be helpful in some situations. [For those familiar with the ProfileXT, I’m a 10 in attitude, which should explain a lot!] While I remain adamant in my belief that behavioral changes do take time and we need to allow a person time and space to make adjustments, it is also the truth that we need to call a spade a spade. Doing less doesn’t allow the person the opportunity for awareness, and therefore, resolution.

I haven’t handled every situation perfectly. But that’s no excuse for striving for the right balance. My goal should always be to bring kindness to the conversation, and never use it as a reason for avoiding a difficult message. That’s compassion.

So I want to know your thoughts. Do you think compassion plays a role in the workplace? Why? How do you handle situations where compassion doesn’t come naturally? I’d love to see your comments below. Or if you have a kind word, give me a call!

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  1. Jeff Brown on January 30, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    Wonderfully expressed, Robin!

  2. Leslie Fish on February 1, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    I hope all is well with Grace and she has no residual effect from the seizures.

    Today I realized that compassionate leadership can be a true asset to the organization and the individual.

    I won’t be at the workshop on Saturday. My husband had emergency open heart surgery this week (quadruple by-pass). The work that I still had pending for the workshop was minimal, signing the educational credit slips and passing them off to be copied so that I could pass them out. That was easily taken care of by the Chapter President, Sara Wagner.

    At work, my executive approached me about an important meeting that will be taking place on Monday and the tasks that I usually take care of for such events. We went over each one and I was able to identify what I knew I could do and what I might need help with if my husband’s situation required me to be away from the office. We were able to notify back-up personnel in advance with details on what might be required of them.

    What a relief to know that the support I might need is there and that both the Saturday Workshop and Monday’s meeting will be covered.

    I know everyone will enjoy your presentation. You always do such a good job. I wish I could be there, but I will catch you at a later time, I’m sure.

    • Robin Eichert on February 1, 2013 at 6:12 pm

      Oh my, Leslie, I’m so sorry to hear about your husband. I hope he is doing well in his recovery and I’ll keep you both in my thoughts. I’ll certainly miss you tomorrow at the meeting, but you are tending to more important things. Please take good care.

      It does sound like you had very compassionate leadership exhibited this week with all the support. I am equally sure that everyone was more than happy to do their part because of the relationships you have built with your support of them in the past. A good example is how you took time to comment here and wish Grace well, despite what you have on your own plate to handle. (Grace is doing great, so good of you to ask.)

      I look forward to being with your group tomorrow and wish you healing (and compassionate) thoughts in the days ahead, Leslie.

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