Six Ways to Lead with Compassion

As a human resource executive Michael had the unpleasant task of eliminating a warehouse manager position. It was difficult for him because the manager, Rose, was a “longtime employee, had an excellent track record, and was 100 percent reliable.” She had to be let go because her warehouse was being consolidated with four others. When he met with Rose to explain her separation package and severance benefits, he was astonished to learn some things about her family life. For the last 17 years, she had gotten up daily at 5:00 a.m. She awakened her paraplegic son, got him out of bed, dressed him, fed him, drove him to the day care facility, and arrived at work promptly at 6:30. “As you know,” she reminded him, “I run a tight ship until 5:30 every day.”

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 p.m. “I have been doing this for 17 years,” she said.

Hearing about Rose’s personal life prompted Michael to reconsider the company’s layoff policies, which he was instrumental in formulating. He realized his company had a gap when it came to extending health benefits for employee families managing major medical issues. Immediately after the conversation with Rose, he worked to change company policy to provide an extra six months of health coverage for families burdened with medical crises.

Michael Carroll, a business executive, told the story in his book The Mindful Leader. Via the exit interview with Rose, he shifted from employee compensation to employee compassion. It’s a shift that needs to be made more often in corporate culture. Ribbi Irwin Dula, a consultant with various corporations and philanthropic institutions, addresses this issue when he states, “Today, we live in a moment of division, with polarized leaders and polarized 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?” The truth is that leadership and compassion can be partnered. Here are some factors that bring compassion into the corporation.

Employees Want to Be Understood.

Too often there’s a rush to judgment 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 strategic vision. It was a huge task that 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 to spend time 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 and said, “I hear your mother is very ill.”

Caught totally by surprise, Rutte burst into tears. The president said nothing and allowed the crying to subside. Then, as Rutte recalls, he “gently said a sentence I will never forget: ‘Whatever you need.’” That was a powerful moment for Rutte. “His understanding and his willingness to both let me be in my pain and offer me everything were qualities of compassion I carry with me to this day.”

Employees Want to Be Treated Fairly.

Here, the best approach is to apply what’s called the Golden Rule. It’s something that appears in all the world’s religions. For example:

  • Christianity: In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.
  • Confucianism: Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no resentment against you, either in the family or in the state.
  • Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.
  • Hinduism: This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others what you would not have them do unto you.
  • Islam: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.
  • Judaism: What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman. This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.
  • Taoism: Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.

As a CEO, president, executive, manager or supervisor, 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.

Employees 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 showering 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.” They add that Warren has learned if he “praised people for the little things, they’d give him even bigger things to praise them for later on down the line.”

Employees Want Trust.

Employees want you to trust them, and they want to trust you. When trust is present, the operations of an office or company 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. Here’s an example of a business relationship that operates on trust. Entertainer Frankie Valli and his songwriter, Bob Gaudio have worked together for over four decades. Unlike the majority in the entertainment business, they don’t have a contract but operate on the basis of a simple handshake deal agreeing to split every dollar either of them earns on a 50-50 basis. Their unique arrangement dates back to 1962 when both were struggling to find a place in the entertainment business. At the time, they were only dreaming of hitting it big. Valli was a barber while Gaudio worked in a printing plant. Long before Franki Valli and the Four Seasons succeeded, they were an unknown group playing weekends in small clubs and bowling alleys. Sitting one evening in Valli’s apartment in a Newark low-income housing project, the two friends decided to be partners forever and share their earnings equally.

Amazingly, they even split money that they earn working on separate, individual projects. For example, in 1978 Valli made nearly $2 million for singing the titled song to the hit movie Grease. He gave half to Gaudio, who did not work on that film. Three years later, Gaudio produced music for the Neil Diamond film, The Jazz Singer. Again, half his profits were given to Valli. From the beginning, they both felt they wanted to trust and support each other. In an interview, Gaudio explained, “We said, ‘Neither one of us knows where we’re going to wind up, but maybe we should hedge our bets. You get 50 percent of me, and I get 50 percent of you.’” Valli adds, “If you trust your partner, contracts are not important. We have never had to police one another.”

Employees 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 a small one, employees 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 University of Oklahoma football games. Since it was a live broadcast, he needed to identify all the players on both teams quickly. To help him with this task, he devised an electric board with the names of all the players on the opposing team. He then hired “spotters” from the opposing team to identify those involved in each of the plays for him by simply pressing a button. “The broadcast was a disaster,” he recalled 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,” said Cronkite. Of course, he worked hard to improve his system for identifying opposing players. He recruited another station employee as a spotter. Together, they memorized the names and jersey numbers, ages, physical characteristics and hometowns of every one of the thirty or forty members of every university team Oklahoma played. Next, the two of them spent three or four hours daily for several days testing each other’s memories. “The practice worked,” stated Cronkite, “and our broadcasts were highly successful from the second game on.” Consider the loss to American journalism had his employers not given him that second chance.

Employees Want to Be Heard.

“Most of the successful people I’ve known are ones who do more listening than talking,” observed Bernard Baruch, business leader and adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt. Employees work better when they are in an environment where their ideas are heard and their opinions solicited. In the Harvard Business Review article, “Leadership That Gets Results,” Daniel Goleman tells of his research involving a “Sister Mary.” She ran a Catholic school system in a large metropolitan area. It was the only private school in an impoverished neighborhood and 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 to explain 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 school parents and neighborhood residents. Throughout the many meetings, Sister Mary just listened. In the end, the school was still closed. Though people mourned the loss of the school, they understood the reasons for shutting it down.

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 as 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.

James Kouzes and Barry Posner, who have been researching and writing about leadership for decades, sum up the elements of compassion that characterize outstanding leaders in their book, Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It. “Leaders we admire do not place themselves at the center; they place others there. They do not seek the attention of people; they give it to others. They do not focus on satisfying their own aims and desires; they look for ways to respond to the needs and interests of their constituents. They are not self-centered; they concentrate on the constituent.”

Victor M. Parachin, an ordained minister and freelance journalist, has authored many articles and several books, including Eastern Wisdom for Western Minds and Healing Grief. Victor and his wife live in Tulsa, OK.

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