Most of us think we have to make a difficult, binary choice between being a good person or being a tough, effective leader. This is a false dichotomy. In truth, doing hard things is often the most human thing to do. There are two key ingredients — wisdom and compassion — and it takes learning and practice to lead with both, as well as some unlearning of conventional management habits. There are four important techniques you can apply in being a wise, compassionate leader: Remember the Golden Rule; Listen intently; Ask yourself how you can be of benefit; Stretch people to see their potential.
A number of years ago, Jesper Brodin, CEO of Ingka Group/IKEA, was asked to take over management of IKEA China, a business that required significant change to be successful and sustainable. He would have to close offices and support many employees in finding new employment. Before accepting such a difficult restructure, he asked himself an important question: “Do I have the courage and stamina to do this?”
As a leader, how do you do the hard things that come with taking on the responsibility of leadership, while remaining a good human being? This is an eternal conundrum for all leaders. Most of us think we have to make a difficult, binary choice between being a good person or being a tough, effective leader. This is a false dichotomy. Being human and making hard leadership decisions are not mutually exclusive. In truth, doing hard things is often the most human thing to do. There are two key ingredients: wisdom and compassion.
In a previous HBR article, we introduced the concept of wise compassionate leadership, with wisdom defined as a deep understanding of what motivates people and the courage to be transparent and to do what needs to be done, even when it is uncomfortable; and compassion as the quality of showing genuine care and concern for others, with a positive intention to support and help.
Our study of leaders and employees from more than 5,000 companies in nearly 100 countries has shown the extraordinary power of wisdom and compassion. Employees with leaders who show either wisdom or compassion have net positive experiences across the board. They enjoy and are engaged with their jobs and are less likely to burn out. But, when a leader demonstrates both wisdom and compassion, the impact on employee wellness and productivity is striking. Job satisfaction is 86% higher for an employee who works for a wise and compassionate leader than an employee who does not. In this case, the sum is much greater than the parts.
Not surprisingly, however, actually leading with this combination of wisdom and compassion isn’t easy. It takes learning and practice. The first big step is to unlearn what you might think “leadership” means and to relearn what it means to be human.
Very simply put, management is about managing others, about exercising executive control over people. Leadership, on the other hand, is about seeing and hearing others, setting a direction, and then letting go of controlling what happens next.
“If you start to think about what our role is as leaders, it’s actually quite simple,” Chris Toth, CEO of the medical device company Varian, told us. “Our role is not to be the ones who make the decision or to be the smartest person in the room. In fact, it can be exceptionally dangerous if the decision-making always goes to the leader. Instead, you must create a culture of compassion and empowerment that is accepting of diverse perspectives. This unlocks people’s creativity, productivity and happiness.”
To foster this type of leadership approach, it is critical to acknowledge that we are not our job titles, we are human beings, wanting to connect on a human level with other people. Here are four ways to bring more humanity to your leadership.
Remember the Golden Rule.
Compassion, at its root, is a desire to see others happy and a readiness to take action to help it happen. This is basically an expression of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. The Golden Rule is a helpful step for putting wise compassion in action since it requires the consideration of another person’s point of view. When we are able to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, we can take a fresh look at a challenging situation. We can take a moment to recognize that we have one view of the situation, but things may, and probably do, look very different from an- other person’s perspective. Although putting yourself in another person’s shoes is good for reflection, it is important to avoid thinking you know what the other person is feeling or experiencing. This is especially true in today’s increasingly diverse work environment. We need to balance putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes with not assuming we understand their reality, which requires good listening.
We have two ears but only one mouth. This means we can—and should—listen twice as much as we speak. When you truly listen to others, they feel heard and seen, which satisfies one of our primary needs as humans. If you can listen intently, with an open mind and a willingness to learn, not only will you become wiser, but you can genuinely help others. If you have an important conversation coming up, take extra time to prepare. This can mean establishing the right kind of environment so that you can be fully present or setting an intention to really hear and feel what the other person wants and feels versus focusing on fixing a problem.
Ask yourself, how can I be of benefit?
A Chinese proverb says, “There is no way to compassion; compassion is the way.” Asking how you can be of benefit to others, though, is a “way to compassion.” Whenever you are about to engage with someone, take a moment to reflect on what might be going on for this person. What is challenging or going well? And then ask yourself: what support might they need to overcome their struggles? What nudge might they need to gain more self-awareness about their blind spots that are creating difficulties? Reflecting on these questions before you meet people will help to create a more human interaction focused on their growth and development.
Stretch people to see their potential.
We all want to perform and be appreciated. A good leader values who we are today but also challenges us to stretch ourselves and do better to realize more of our true potential. This is not easy. When someone is already doing well, pushing them to do better can be discouraging and demotivating. But leadership is not about trying to please people and make them feel content and at ease. Leadership is about supporting people by shining a light on things they may not want to face. Instead of shying away from these uncomfortable conversations, try to view your role to stretch people as an indication of true care for them.
When we practice wise compassion by bringing more of our humanity to our leadership, we can create a culture in which others increase their focus on real human connections. As leaders, we should never underestimate the impact we have on people. We have the power to control their livelihood. We have power over the work they do. And we have power over how they feel treated. This is a huge responsibility. This makes it of the utmost importance to do the hard work of leadership in a human way, so that we can be more successful in positively impacting people’s work experience, their sense of commitment, and their job performance.