Leadership with Compassion


As a human resource executive, Michael Carroll had the unpleasant task of eliminating a warehouse manager position. It was difficult for him because the manager, Rose, was a ‘long-time employee, had an excellent track record, and was one hundred percent reliable.’ The company had to let her go because her warehouse was being consolidated with four others. He met with Rose to explain her separation package and severance benefits. During that exit interview, he was astonished to learn the daily challenges in her personal life. Rose got up daily at 5:00 am. She got her paraplegic son out of bed, dressed him, fed him and drove him to the day care facility, arriving at work promptly at 6:30. ‘As you know, I run a tight ship until 5:30 every day’, Rose said. Upon leaving work she picked her son up, brought him home, bathed and fed him and read him a story before putting him to bed at 9:30 pm. She had been doing this for seventeen years.

After interviewing Rose, Michael realised his company had a gap when it came to helping families manage major medical issues. He immediately worked to change company policy to provide extra help for families burdened with medical crises.

That incident is related by Michael in his book The Mindful Leader.

Through the exit interview with Rose, he permitted his leadership to be influenced by compassion.  This is a shift which needs to happen more often in society. That issue is raised by Rabbi Irwin Kula, a consultant with various corporations and philanthropic institutions. He asks: ‘Today we live in a moment of division, with polarised leaders and polarised followers. What would it mean to lead with compassion? Why do we rarely think of compassion as a necessary quality of strong leadership? How would the process and content of leadership be different if compassion was a central quality of leadership?’ The truth is that leadership and compassion can be partnered. In the Bible, the prophet Daniel urged King Nebuchadnezzar to lead with compassion, saying: ‘Therefore, O king, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.’ (Daniel 4:27, New International Version.) Though his advice was offered to a king, it’s a sound suggestion to anyone in a leadership role. Here are factors to consider for leading with compassion:

People want to be understood
Too often there’s a rush to judgement without taking time to gather all the information necessary for making a decision. A good principle to apply when dealing with others is this: seek first to understand. Martin Rutte tells of working as a consultant with a company to help the president and senior vice-presidents implement a new vision. It was a huge task which took enormous amounts of time and energy. Simultaneously, Rutte’s mother was in the final stages of cancer. He worked a long day and then drove 40 miles home to be with her every night. That was additionally tiring and stressful for him but he wanted to be there for his mother.

Concerned that his weariness might come through, Rutte felt someone at the company needed to know about the commitment to his mother. He didn’t want to burden the company president so he confided in the human resources vice-president. A few days later the president called Rutte into his office. Asking Rutte to have a seat, the president looked him directly in the eyes, saying: ‘I hear your mother is very ill.’ Caught totally by surprise, Rutte burst into tears. The president said nothing but allowed the crying to subside. Then, he ‘gently said a sentence I will never forget: “Whatever you need.”’ That was a powerful moment for Rutte. ‘His understanding and his willingness both to let me be in my pain and to offer me everything were qualities of compassion I carry with me to this day.’

People want to be treated fairly
The best approach is to apply what’s called the ‘Golden Rule’ as taught by Jesus: ‘in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.’ (Matthew 7:12, NIV.) In whatever leadership role you find yourself, the application of the Golden Rule is simply to ask yourself ‘How would I like to be treated in this situation?’ Then do just that.

People want to be appreciated
Warren Buffett is the highly successful chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. One important key to his success is showing appreciation. He has a great talent for showing praise upon employees. In their book, Warren Buffett’s Management Secrets, authors Mary Buffett and David Clark note that Warren praises employees and managers for the small things and is ‘gushing over them for the big. He is the consummate cheerleader and his employees’ biggest fan. He never misses a chance to praise his managers in private or at Berkshire’s annual meetings and in its annual reports.’

People want trust
They want you to trust them and they want to trust you. When trust is present, the operations of any organisation run smoothly and seamlessly. Trust cannot be created with financial incentives, benefits or office furnishings. It comes as a result of fundamental honesty and fairness. Jesus trusted and believed in people. As a result they trusted and believed in him. He saw some men fishing, approached them and said: ‘Come, follow me… and I will make you fishers of men’ (Matthew 4:19, NIV). They dropped their nets and joined Jesus. On another occasion, Jesus diplomatically complimented Mary without insulting her concerned sister, Martha (Luke 10:38-42).

People want to be given a second chance
Sooner or later everyone makes a mistake. Sometimes the mistake may be a big one. Whether it’s a large or small one, people want to be given a second chance. Early in his broadcast career, Walter Cronkite, one of America’s most respected television journalists, was hired to broadcast American football games played by the University of Oklahoma. To help him quickly identify all the players on both teams, he devised an electric board with the names of the players on the opposite team. He then hired ‘spotters’ from the opposing team to identify, for him, those involved in each of the plays by simply pressing a button. ‘The broadcast was a disaster’, he recalls, because the spotters made mistakes as they punched the identifying buttons on the electric board.

However, ‘the station owners and sponsors were kinder than I deserved. They gave me another chance. ‘Of course, Cronkite worked hard to improve his system for identifying opposing players. He recruited as a spotter another station employee. Together, they memorised the names and jersey numbers, ages, physical characteristics and hometowns of each one of the thirty or forty members of each university Oklahoma played. Next, the two of them spent three or four hours daily for several days testing each other’s memories. ‘The practice worked and our broadcasts were highly successful from the second game on.’ Consider the loss to US journalism had his employers not given Cronkite that second chance.

People want to be heard
‘Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking’, observed Bernard Baruch, business leader and adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt. Organisations work better when people are heard, when their opinions are solicited. In an article – ‘Leadership That Gets Results’, published in the Harvard Business Review – Daniel Goleman tells of his research involving Sister Mary. She ran a Catholic school system in a large metropolitan area. The only private school in an impoverished neighbourhood. It had been losing money for years. The archdiocese could no longer afford to keep it open. When Sister Mary was instructed to shut it down, she didn’t just lock the doors. Rather, she called a meeting of all the teachers and staff, explaining the financial crisis. It was the first time those working at the school had been included in the business side of the institution.

Sister Mary asked for their ideas on ways to keep the school open and on how to handle the closing, should it come to that. She also met with the school parents and neighbourhood residents. Throughout the many meetings, Sister Mary just listened. In the end, the school still closed. Though many people mourned the loss of the school, they understood and no one objected.

Goleman compares Sister Mary’s leadership style to that of a ‘priest in our research who headed another Catholic school.’ He too was told to shut it down’ and he did exactly what he was told. ‘The result was disastrous: parents filed lawsuits, teachers and parents picketed, and local newspapers ran editorials attacking his decision.’ It took a year to resolve all the disputes before the priest could finally close the school.

The importance of compassion in leadership is additionally stressed by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, who have been researching and writing about leadership for decades. In their book, Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It, they say: ‘Leaders we admire do not place themselves at the centre; they place others there. They do not seek the attention of people; satisfying their own aims and desires; they look for ways to respond to the needs and interests of their constituents. They are no self-centred; they concentrate on the constituent.’

What can you do to make a difference?


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