“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” Mark Twain
In 2011, I was invited to Southeast Asia to teach leadership to business professionals from multiple countries. It was during that time that I met psychologist and business consultant Lee Konecke from Los Angeles. I was instantly fascinated by his strategies for creativity and performance and knew his thoughts would empower my own.
During our flight, as we shared our philosophies, I began to understand his view that leading oneself begins with “getting comfortable with discomforts.” We must know what they really mean, how to navigate them and how to use them as platforms to build something new and great.
Lee says that leading with compassion and kindness might be unorthodox in the business world, but believes “kindness is the ground on which growth occurs.” He asserts that humility and flexibility in a kind leader is accompanied by gratitude and openness.
During our conversation, we discussed how this concept is the basis for all new business in the “connection-based economy,” which revolves around human relationships. People do business with people, not entities, just as employees are often more loyal to an effective leader than to a company.
I shared with Lee that I had taught about the characteristics of a leader for many years: Communicator, Credible, Competent, Counselor, Creative and Courageous.
However, Lee suggested I add another characteristic and one he felt was the most important: Compassion.
He explained that compassion is the ingredient that allows you to connect with another person. One of the most important ways we can impact others is to remember what it’s like to be the boss, the child, the parent, the teacher, the student. When we put ourselves in the other person’s place, we take on an entirely different perspective.
“Empathy is a desire to know the other person, but compassion is to act on that knowledge with a positive intent.” Dalai Lama
He was right. We may think of compassion as a sentimentality that has no place in the business world. However, when taking a closer look at this quality it really defines how we interact with bosses, employees, customers, co-workers and competitors.
We’ve been taught as leaders to lead with our heads not our hearts. However, when we can connect the two, we find a balance between being a boss and a true advocate.
How are we compassionate? We listen, we learn, we care, we act, when necessary, we invest ourselves, we take risks. In other words, we are no longer simply aware of another’s suffering. We are willing to act on that knowledge.
I believe it starts by listening, and not just hearing, what the other person is sharing with us. We absorb that knowledge, re-interpret it, process it and feel it before we are at a place to take an active role.
By acting, that can mean actively listening or it can mean doing something beyond listening and responding. We may change a work-related or personal decision based on our compassion. We may give that person another chance. We may step outside of our comfort zone and sacrifice some of ourselves to ease the discomfort of another.
An absence of compassion is a vacuum on the leadership spectrum. It is a hollow space that disconnects us from another person.
Compassion does not always come easily. In fact, it often takes effort because it means we must put our own judgment aside so that we can appreciate the viewpoint that may be different from our own. Compassion is genuine and is not a characteristic that can be rehearsed. It must be real.
When compassion is engaged, we risk being hurt because we must put ourselves where the other person is and that is often a place that is uncomfortable. We must feel what they are feeling. It is not a place for self-pity or feeling sorry for someone else. It is not a place of judgment or superiority. It does not even mean rescuing them from their situation.
Colin Powell, the former U.S. Joint Military Chief of Staff and Secretary of State, in his book, It Worked For Me, writes, “You can never err by treating everyone in the building with respect, thoughtfulness and a kind word.”
Compassion is not a show of weakness. Instead, it reveals the true strength of a leader who can boldly exhibit a “soft skill” while standing firm in their leadership. We know that employees don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. That’s where kindness and compassion, when practiced in the workplace, are engrained in the culture and increase productivity and retention. Always show more kindness than seems necessary because the person receiving it needs it more than you will ever know.
When I step on a stage to share my message, I bring a part of everyone who has ever been kind to me with me, regardless of how different or alike we may be. It’s the kindness and compassion of others that inspires me and gives the reassurance I am never alone.
It’s here when I am sharing my message that I rely on the ground of kindness that Lee taught me. I am both the receiver and the giver as compassion creates an ebb and flow between myself and the audience.
Translating this moment to the workplace requires, focus but it’s where we discover that being a leader is more rewarding than just being boss and we reap the rewards of compassion.
As we explore the other characteristics of a leader, let’s stay rooted in compassion. It’s where the heart of leadership lies and sets apart the genuine leader.