Self-compassion to sustain compassionate leaders
What makes a good leader?
Let’s start by asking a question about yourself as a leader,
When you turn up in the room, do your team feel oppressed and observed, or do they feel strengthened and appreciated?
Great leaders are often described as being in service of their teams. The facilitators of others. The enablers of people whose very presence increases the team’s sense of ability to succeed.
Beyond the positive experience of this type of leader in a team, evidence suggests that this also underpins the effectiveness of a leader. The main predictor of leadership effectiveness is the ability of a leader to invite, enable and receive feedback from the team (upwards feedback). This being indicative of a leader who is in touch, listening and joined up with the team in their work.
We can name the leadership style that might best facilitate upwards feedback as being ‘compassionate leadership’. One definition of compassionate leadership is,
Compassionate leadership in practice means leaders listening with fascination to those they lead, arriving at a shared (rather than imposed) understanding of the challenges they face, empathising with and caring for them, and then taking action to help or support them.
I can bring to mind leaders of this type, who feel open, receptive, and responsive to the experience of the team. It is a model of leadership I aspire to, and in fact find too easy on occasions — being able to turn up for others and eager to enable my team to meet their challenges as equipped and supported as possible — at a cost to myself.
What strikes me in this definition and in the context of leading during crisis or pressure — is the absence of describing where a leader is compassionate to themselves. Good leadership is very often framed through the lens of behaviours to the team, without reference to what a leader needs to be present in this way.
This may seem a strange idea to raise to the well-read leader, but I too often meet leaders who are exhausted and stressed, in a role where they are regularly arriving for their team, listening and enabling. These behaviours can inflate to consume the life of a well-meaning leader, who increasingly turns up for the organisation and reduces their presence in their own life and own wellbeing.
What I have witnessed, and experienced is the need to arrive compassionately, for yourself.
Ultimately, the organisation needs the leader to thrive if compassion is to be maintained. As the risk of not doing so is compassion fatigue, and a shift away from being available to just trying to survive your own burn-out. I’ve been here many times, as have many leaders I support — so this is more than academic… but I’ve learned a lot along the way.
Self-compassion for the leader — 4 key needs
Listening with fascination
Being able to hear what is going on for yourself requires active effort, for many people. This means taking the time to listen to your emotions, body and thoughts.
What are you feeling day to day? What is your primary emotional state?
What is your body saying to you? Are you aching? Are you sleeping well? Eating more or less?…
What do you think about and how in control are you of this? Can you think about things beyond work when outside of work?
For many of us, taking a period to sit and write or talk about ourselves is necessary to access this. The same as we’d give to our teams, give to yourself.
Understanding the challenge you face
Hearing what you are experiencing is not the same as noticing what you need. The symptom is not the cure.
It is important to recognise that you are a human and you have needs, which may be unmet or challenged. But in this realisation, you need to feel compassionate to yourself. This is central — you may feel stuck or that the current crisis needs you entirely. This may be true, it has been for many nurses and doctors recently, but it is worth being ok with feeling sorry for yourself or wanting to rescue yourself — as you would others.
Letting yourself feel the appropriate compassion for someone in your situation is therapeutic. It’s what we give to others when they are in need or distressed.
For many of us, we are even harder on ourselves when times are hard — or if we fail. This lack of compassion to yourself — recognise, it is not how you would act to others and you are as deserving as others to receive it.
Empathising and caring
The ability to provide care, as a compassionate leader, is felt by others. We offer ideas, space, solutions, validation, resource.. but we do it from a position of recognising the feeling the other has and caring for them as a valued person and team member. This is felt by others.
Feel this for yourself.
Recognise, without defence, that things are difficult and the challenge is hard for you. But also recognise that the idea that you have no space for yourself is likely exaggerated by how hard things are. There are always ingredients that can be added to any situation to ease it, but without pause, compassion and and intent to provide care — we can be lost in the doing of a situation.
Recognise also that your team need you to care for yourself. A leader should model what a team should do, not just preach. A leader needs to be fit to lead. Compassion needs to be received and not just spent.
Use these realisations to activate a commitment to support yourself, making it reality and not just a lost or distant idea.
Your wellbeing is the most important asset you have. It enables you to fully turn up for everyone in your life, including yourself. Without it, every role you have will suffer, which in turn, negatively impacts on others.
Consider what you need to have wellbeing and resilience, and this differs for us all.
What pace can you maintain?
What nurtures you, and how can you reconnect with this or add in more?
Who nurtures you, and where are they in your life?
What does your body need?
What do your emotions need?
What does your mind need?
Review all of these regularly.
Need, need, need… it is a word you need to embody as a self-awareness dial. When your needs are being unmet, the needs of those you lead will eventually be unmet too.