Why should leaders (show they) care?


Leadership competencies are a fallacy. It is the more subtle meta-competencies that leaders need to take stock off. The Oxford Dictionary defines meta-competencies as the overarching competencies which facilitate agility and flexibility. They include interpersonal skills that include learning, anticipating, creating change.

Great leaders are highly ‘meta-competent’. They are intuitive, creative and compassionate – they operate from their head, their hearts and their gut.

You can learn more about our views on using your head, heart and gut to be a better leader here.

In this article, we make the case for compassionate leadership.

While we define compassion as the quality of having positive intentions and real concern for others, in truth, compassion starts with ourselves, being kind to ourselves and realising that we are not alone in our challenges. When we connect with others and feel a sense of community, we are more like to feel valued and motivated. This is not just a feel-good anecdote. It is a scientific fact, proven with neuroscience.

When we experience a sense of belonging (i.e when we feel loved, accepted, appreciated and connected) when we engage with others, it is, on one level, because we feel personally valued. On a deeper level, it is because our values are in alignment with the values of another. When that happens, our brains produce the neurotransmitter oxytocin, the bonding hormone, which results in greater levels of trust. Consequently, when we feel the certainty of trust, our levels of doubt are replaced by increased willingness, motivation and commitment. With the increased production of oxytocin, our stress levels are reduced, and we are naturally more receptive to creative thinking.

The presence of oxytocin counteracts the levels of cortisol (the hormone produced when we are under stress). Where there are high levels of oxytocin, there are high levels of trust.

True compassion requires us to be open to different realities, to see other perspectives. To feel true compassion, we must understand that the world is not a simple place with one version of the truth. We don’t have to agree with the other versions, we just have to accept their existence, try to understand them and how they emerged.

Compassionate leaders create stronger connections between people, increase collaboration, raise levels of trust and enhance loyalty. And, from compassion, we build empathy. As a leader, empathy is crucial to appreciate how others might feel or perceive a certain situation. It is about appreciating where they are and how they might feel.

The more pleasure we derive from acts of compassion and empathy, the more we experience the benefits of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. Beyond the positive state of being that those actions engender, neurobiologically, they have an even greater benefit. They enhance the brain’s ability to self-regulate emotions, meaning that they can be highly effective in stress reduction and overall health.

In other words, the more we give, the more we receive.

There are three types of empathy:

  1. Cognitive Empathy is the most basic kind. It’s the ability to understand why someone might feel the way they do.  It’s a great skill and necessary for effective communication, negotiation and marketing.
  2. Emotional Empathy goes a step deeper and it is when you have a desire to take action and help others when they are in distress.
  3. Compassionate Empathy is the style of empathy we are referring to. This type of empathy reinforces our connections by promoting communication, vulnerability and acceptance.

So, it starts with creating connections, which build compassion. And compassion breeds empathy. In turn, empathy fuels connection because, as Brene Brown says, ‘empathy is feeling with people, and connecting with a person’s situation’. As neuroscience shows us, these three meta-competencies (connecting, compassion, empathy) stimulate even more meta-competencies such as creativity, productivity, motivation, inclusivity, to name a few.

In a 2020 Forbes articles Melissa Daimler writes about three leadership shifts brought on by the dramatic changes in the working world.  Her first one is the shift from communication to empathy. While communication has always been a critical corporate skill, leaders have had to go beyond sharing updates, asking questions and active listening. They’ve had to go deeper and develop empathy. Daimler references Eventbrite’s CHRO, David Hanrahan, who said, in a recent WSJ article they are encouraging managers to ask employees how they are really doing, and, more importantly, wait for the response. Empathy is being able to make space between your question and someone’s answer.

Madison Estrella, writer for thought-leadership platform, Medium writes:  “Given its ability to promote connections, there’s no doubt about empathy’s role in team building. Empathy is all about communication– from voicing your opinions to being an active listener, empathy places a significant role in both ends of communication. Thus, the act of listening to others and showing up for them helps promote inclusivity as it helps reinforce the idea that everyone has a voice that deserves to be heard.”

We’ve summarised her four tips for being a better empathetic leader.  You can read her full article here.

  1. Be accessible. This means giving others the time and space to converse about their thoughts and concerns, be receptive to their opinions and be open to criticism.
  2. Practice active listening – be 100% present when engaging and, when appropriate, offer helpful, action-oriented thoughts.
  3. Enable honest discussions, but be mindful of wallowing in negative emotions. Pivot the conversation towards solutions-based, empowering and edifying thoughts.
  4. Celebrate success. Integrate empathy by creating an internal culture of encouragement and celebration.

For many leaders, practicing empathy may require stepping outside of your comfort zone. It certainly requires courage to create meaningful connections and to share feelings of compassion and empathy. These are the meta-competencies the world needs from its leaders. And the rewards professionally, personally, emotionally and physically, are worth it.