Master the essential skills for leading with greater humanity.
When the global pandemic upended our lives and changed work forever, our once-predictable management terrain became littered with ambiguity, new demands, and shifting expectations. There is now a human dimension to corporate leadership that is both urgent and necessary – addressing mental health challenges, designing new approaches to remote and hybrid work, stepping into vital public dialogues on social and climate justice. The demand for more human leadership is there, but what exactly does that look like?
Potential Project conducted a multi-year study with participants from approximately 5,000 companies in 100 countries. We distilled human leadership into two key leadership attributes: wisdom, the courage to do what needs to be done, even when it is uncomfortable or difficult; and compassion, the care and empathy shown towards others, combined with the intention to support and help. Both traits are important, but when they are combined, there is an exponentially higher impact on important metrics. For example, job satisfaction is 86% higher and burnout decreases by 64% for an employee who works for a wise and compassionate leader than an employee who does not.
We then worked to uncover what wise compassion looks like in action and the skills leaders need to make it a reality. We identified four skills: presence, courage, candour, and transparency. When practised together – and in that order –they create a virtuous cycle that we call the Wise Compassion Flywheel.
Caring presence: be here now
Leadership is about connection, and there is no possibility of connection if we are not present. When we are present, we are in the moment, giving the people around us our full attention.
Unfortunately, that is not our default state. We are wired to be distracted and prone to act on autopilot with ingrained behaviours. In our research with leaders across the globe, we found that during working hours, we are distracted roughly 37% of the time.
Mindfulness is a useful way to counter this tendency, helping us become more present with what is happening right now. It also helps us to be present with ourselves, to recognize any traps that lie in our way, and to tune into what others are expressing but may not be saying. Being present is the foundation that enables us to incorporate compassion into our interactions and helps us remember that the person in front of us deserves our respect, attention, care, and curiosity.
Here are three ways you can start practising caring presence right now.
1 Be curious and don’t make assumptions
Too often, we think we know how someone feels – when in fact we are blind to what they are actually experiencing. This makes the other person feel unheard, unseen or simply misunderstood. We need to set aside our biases, our assumptions and our fears, and bring genuine curiosity to our conversations. Try to see the situation – the other person – with fresh eyes, instead of assuming that you know what they will say or how they will feel.
2 Let go of expectations
Letting go of expectations means that when we are in the moment, we let go of what we planned for and what we hoped would happen. Instead, we are present with what is really happening. Letting go of expectations also means letting go of hopes that the other person will see us in a certain way.
Remember, it is not about you.
3 Use the power of the pause
The power of the pause is simple. First, be aware of your emotional ‘hot buttons’ – situations in which you tend to react instead of responding. Second step: simply stop and take a moment to collect your thoughts. Take a breath. Notice the urge to react and take a few more breaths. The third step: choose how you want to respond, ideally with both wisdom and compassion.
Caring courage: courage over comfort
As human beings, we’re hardwired to embrace certainty and safety and to avoid danger and discomfort. In fact, sometimes we’ll do nearly everything we can to stay in our comfort zone. Overcoming our comfort-seeking orientation requires courage: the inner strength to overcome our fears or dreads about a situation so that we can take the action that is required, or engage in a necessary confrontation.
Our daily job as leaders is to make and execute hard decisions that may trigger hurt, disagreement, or confrontation. With caring courage, we might still experience fear about an uncomfortable interaction or the delivery of negative news, but we find the inner strength to overcome the fear and still engage in the difficult situation in front of us. And when we open ourselves up to difficult emotions – our own and those of others – rather than running away from them, the chance for human connection blossoms.
Here are three ways you can start practising caring courage right now.
1 Have at least one courageous confrontation every day
Make it a habit to engage in at least one courageous situation every day. It can be as small as giving a kind piece of feedback; the key is that it requires a little bit of courage from you. You will know that it does if it feels slightly uncomfortable.
2 Deal with things—never let them fester
If you know something must be changed, do it. Don’t leave people in suspense. They know something is not right, even if it hasn’t been discussed – and nothing is as toxic as unacknowledged conflict. So, lead. Make decisions. Act. Move forward.
3 Trust your intuition
If you feel that something is wrong, it’s likely that something really is wrong. Trust yourself. Push beyond the fearful part of yourself that says everything will be okay if you pretend things are okay. Acknowledge the problem and move forward. It will only get worse the longer you wait.
Caring candour: direct is faster
As leaders, we need to find the middle ground between candour and care in order to create a culture that is both kind and straight-talking. Being direct and straightforward is always the fastest and most efficient way to engage in a conversation. However, candour on its own can easily come across as brutal honesty, the simple statement of our unfiltered opinions.
With caring candour, you deliver your message in the most kind and direct way, allowing the other person to receive it quickly and enabling the real conversation to begin. It is not a free pass to speak your mind, however – it means being direct and decisive while also being authentically open to other people’s perspectives.
Caring candour is like having a hard back and soft front. The hard back is our strength, confidence, decisiveness and conviction. The soft front is our openness to caring for people’s emotions and wellbeing.
Here are three ways you can start practising caring candour right now.
1 Bottom line it first
Bottom lining it first means that you start with the conclusion – the key message that needs to be shared – and then provide the context, rather than doing things the other way around. If the person is going to be let go, or the project is going to be cancelled, or you need to give someone tough feedback, lead with that. This approach ensures that you don’t spend time wrapping a hand grenade. Trying to ease into a difficult message is generally only serving to make things easier for you, not easier for the other person.
2 Avoid the popularity game
Do not expect that by bringing more compassion into your leadership, you will be liked. Compassion is not a way of being popular. This is difficult, because there’s a part of all of us that wants to please others and be seen in a positive light. Find the inner strength to be confident that you have done the right thing and do not need the approval of others, even when you are trying to care for them.
3 Have zero tolerance for value-breakers
Directness is important in all aspects of leadership, but the most important area is with issues related to a breach of values or cultural norms. If you want people to have confidence in the values you espouse, you need to be direct in how you deal with people who operate against those values. When you have zero tolerance for value-breakers, it makes it easier for all to act in ways that are aligned with those values.
Caring transparency: clarity is kindness
Caring transparency means getting ideas and thoughts out in the open – making the invisible visible. It means being open and honest about where you stand and what awaits the organization. Transparency is distinct from candour in that you can be candid and still conceal information. When you are transparent, people know what is on your mind. You strip away the power that often comes with knowledge and level the playing field. And when you add caring to transparency, people also know what is in your heart.
Here are three ways you can start practising caring transparency right now.
1 Make time for connection
A sense of caring transparency is greatly enhanced when we are intentional about making time just to connect, because people see us as a whole person and feel more comfortable in our presence. We are social beings; we work better and enjoy work more when we feel connected. In our increasingly virtual workplace, we need to create moments for real and transparent human connection.
2 Encourage dissent
Most leaders say they want people to share concerns, raise objections and point out issues, but then they rarely follow up by engaging with the dissenting views or celebrating the person who spoke up. Both are important to reinforce the message that dissent is truly welcomed. The next time you are in a meeting and are about to ask, “Does everyone agree?”, why not try asking instead, “Who would like to share why this is a bad idea?”
3 Show your true self
When delivering tough messages, we tend to put up a shield to protect ourselves from potential backlash from the recipient. Although this protective barrier is natural, it gets in the way of having a heart-to-heart, human-to-human conversation. To develop caring transparency, you need to lower this barrier and allow people to see you as a human being – not as a boss or a leader, but as someone who cares.
When we master the four elements of the Wise Compassion Flywheel, we also enable others to show up with presence, courage, candour and transparency. Over time this becomes our shared culture. We unleash the best in each other and cultivate happier, healthier and more productive teams and organizations.
Rasmus Hougaard is the founder and chief executive of Potential Project and co-author of Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way. Moses Mohan is a partner and head of leadership solutions at Potential Project.