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Center for Enlightened Leadership

Leading with Compassion

  Dr. Stephen L. Sokolow
  Dr. Stephen L. Sokolow
Executive Director and Founding Partner

Wise leaders are compassionate. They understand that all human beings at various times in their lives incur problems, difficulties, and illness—or even tragedy and severe personal loss. Wise leaders are especially sensitive to the needs of others during such difficult times, and they make an extra effort to be kind and understanding during others’ missteps or misfortunes.

Compassion comes from within. It is archetypal, which is to say that we humans have an innate capacity for it. Once that capacity is activated by our own life experiences, certain external events and circumstances trigger compassionate feelings almost instinctively and automatically. Wise leaders not only have those feelings, but they know how and when to act on them.

When you feel a sense of compassion, or when something comes into your consciousness that engenders such feelings or thoughts, what do you do? That feeling has to become a trigger than prompts you to stop and reorder your priorities so that you can act on the sense of compassion you’re experiencing. You have to be active to show compassion—it’s not a passive quality.

Wise Leaders Modify Rules to Better Meet People’s Needs

Some degree of structure is needed in any organization in order for people to be happy. Standard operating procedures, policies, and codes of conduct are important—but so is flexibility! Sometimes compassion argues in favor of forgiving a rule or even ignoring it altogether. How many hours a week does someone work? If someone has worked very hard, and even logged extra time, why not look the other way when they need to go home early to care for a sick child or because their parents are visiting from out of town? The personnel manual may say “You can’t do that,” but compassion would say, “Yeah, that’s the right way to go.” Flexibility becomes an important consideration in terms of their human needs.

When I completed my master’s degree I decided to apply to the doctoral program at Temple University. I was dismayed to learn that there was a rule saying you could have no more than two C’s during the course of your master’s studies. I had three. I pleaded with my advisor to go to bat for me and seek a waiver of the rule. He did just that. I promised him that if he went out on a limb for me I would do my best to earn all A’s in my doctoral program. The waiver was granted. His compassion changed the entire trajectory of my professional life. I’m happy to report that I was able to keep my part of the bargain and earn a 4.0 cumulative average, completing the program with “Distinction.”

When you’re doing the right thing and appropriately bending otherwise rigid rules for people, they will perceive you as being a compassionate leader, because you are.

Wise Leaders Show Special Sensitivity When People Are Coping with Severe Hardships

Wise leaders understand that situations change and circumstances change. Life has its own rhythms—and those rhythms are subject to continual changes. Some days you’re up; some days you’re down. When you bring people into your organization you have a similar understanding: that they will have ups and downs, and they deserve the same kind of support when they’re down as you will give them when they’re contributing more fully.

In any organization it’s inevitable that some people will be faced with a personal tragedy or a severe hardship. As a superintendent of schools I dealt with numerous examples of employees who had a terminal illness but who had used all their sick leave, or an employee whose contract was not being renewed but who was seriously ill and would lose paid health benefits when their contract expired. In such cases, I always figured out a way to act with compassion by granting additional sick leave, or by extending a contract for several months, or by paying all or part of a health insurance premium even though I wasn’t required to do so.

Sometimes a leader will manage matters in a most discreet way in order to protect the dignity and privacy of the person in need. Even so, there are times when others in the organization become aware that a kindness has been extended to one of their colleagues. That sends an important message: “Who knows what the future may hold, but I now know that if I have a personal tragedy or hardship, I work in an organization whose leaders are caring and compassionate, and that in all likelihood they will be there for me as well.” The way in which such life-changing circumstances are handled has a powerful effect on the way people feel about their organization, and the leaders for whom they work.

Compassionate Acts Are Long Remembered and Appreciated

Compassionate acts tend to engender deep feelings of appreciation. During times when people are hurting, in need, and vulnerable, they are acutely sensitive to expressions of compassion. Life in any organization is replete with opportunities for us, as leaders, to act with compassion. Never underestimate the lasting power of those acts and their ripple effects.

Situations present themselves in any organization that give leaders the opportunity to respond with or without compassion. The way in which these deeply personal situations are handled is long remembered, and they affect the way we view our leaders and employers. Were they there for you when you needed them, or do you work in a place that’s cold and hard and unbending in times of human need?

Opportunities for compassion abound. As a superintendent, I faithfully took the time to send hand-written sympathy notes to people on my staff who had lost someone. Consequently, people would come up to me—sometimes many months later—to extend thanks for taking the time to write a note, or for attending the viewing or funeral of a loved one. I remember when one of my building principals was undergoing a catheterization procedure and an angioplasty. The exams took place on a weekend, and not in a hospital that was nearby. I chose to be there when the principal came out of the recovery room. The principal was deeply touched by this act of caring; he told me how much my visit meant to him. That compassionate act helped create a bond between us that has lasted more than twenty years.

Whenever possible, wise leaders take the time to attend viewings and funerals, to call and ask how someone is doing following an accident or a surgery or an illness, or to send a note of concern or condolence. Knowing that life is fraught with hardship, illness, tragedies, and death, wise leaders show their compassion in ways large and small.

Compassion Is the Golden Rule in Action

All of us, regardless of our age or station in life, desire to be treated with compassion. If that’s the way we wish to be treated, however, we need to model such actions ourselves. The part of the Golden Rule that says “as you would have others do unto you” is not intended to make others feel obligated to do good things for you; it’s to help you know the right thing to do for others.

As leaders, we make many decisions amid circumstances that are not clear-cut, circumstances that force us to make close calls, tough calls. Often the right thing to do in a given situation is not readily apparent. Wise leaders take the time to project themselves into the other person’s shoes, asking, “How would I want to be treated? What would I think would be fair? What would I see as compassionate?”

Putting yourself mentally into another’s situation may help you see a compassionate course of action that is wise, not just sentimental. Real compassion takes the whole picture into account in choosing the wisest course.

Center for Empowered Leadership ®
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