What Does Caring Mean for Leaders?

Years ago when I started talking about being a compassionate leader, the topic was on the fringes of leadership discussions. Research shows that the Millennial generation of workers prefer working for compassionate leaders, so there is an increase in interest in what it takes to be compassionate. The short definition of compassion is to show that you care. Taking care is as important as all the other aspects of leadership, yet it doesn’t get discussed much in leadership training.

All leadership is about taking care – of your people, yourself, your company. This article will explore less obvious aspects of compassionate leadership.

In 2005 Dee Hock, CEO Emeritus of Visa, wrote about taking care of self and others in his book One From Many. Whenever he was asked what the most important duties of a manager are, his first answer was always “manage yourself.”

My interpretation of “manage yourself” is to take care of yourself. That means nourishing yourself physically, mentally, socially and emotionally. This sets the stage for caring for others.

There Isn’t Enough Time!

When leaders ask me how they can do better with managing their time, I enquire about whether they are taking time for themselves. The answer for  80%-90% of people I ask, is “no.”

Well, if you aren’t taking care of yourself, then what message are you sending to others who you rely on for accuracy and reliability? If they were in better health would they be able to deliver better results? Health doesn’t just “happen” it has to be taken care of and prioritized. Leaders have to pay attention to nutrition, exercise and sleep and to be role models for their staff.

You want accuracy, reliability and full engagement of your team members, then you have to set the standard of how to attain that. You have to care enough to do something about it, like getting out of work on time to go to the gym and include fruit and vegetables in your meals. It is quick and easy to grab the stale donut in the break room and call it “breakfast.” Instead, bring in some fruit. Grabbing a bag of tangerines can be as quick as stopping for a box of donuts for the team and is more refreshing and nutritious. It also gives the message that your care goes a little further than the sugar rush.

Working Harder than Everyone Else

Communication is recognized as a leadership skill. The internal dialogue of resentment and envy when you feel like you are working harder than everyone else is hidden, but still “seen.” Neuroscience has taught us that the thoughts that influence our compassion or empathy are transmitted by our brain cells to others around us, even without being in the line of sight of the other person.

If you are carrying someone else’s burden, learn how to negotiate, delegate or say “no” better. Negative thoughts create a toxic cellular environment that can lead to illness.  In our society we think that “stress” is the only thing that leads to work-related illness. What image does the word “stress” elicit? The stereotypical picture of a stressed person is one tearing their hair out with distress. Stress can be as subtle as anticipating someone else not pulling their weight during a work day.

Taking care of your internal and emotional environment starts with your recognizing these thoughts as stress.

Address the issues through delegating better and creating learning opportunities for others. Offering others on your team the opportunity to share the challenges you have taken on alone elicits pride and a shared experience. People thrive in a learning environment where they can make a contribution.

Sometimes all it takes is to have the conversation about new responsibilities to ignite enthusiasm and a sense that you really care.

Asking is Caring

Hardworking leaders tell me that they are pretty good at identifying and solving problems so are flummoxed by the errors that continue to arise. “All he had to do was to listen to what I said and the problem would not have occurred” is what I hear.

All the employee hears, and tunes out, is: “blah, blah, blah, blowing his own trumpet again, I’ve heard this before.” The words don’t count, the attitude and perception do.

Getting people to pay attention and to learn is about you asking explorative questions that uncover knowledge, gaps and misconceptions. You get to work much less when you ask questions and you uncover the real obstacle to the successful outcome. As leaders learn to ask good discovery questions, they demonstrate a real interest in the person in front of them. This is another opportunity for showing your caring as a leader.

Creating a Safe Environment

Safety is not only about preventing trips, falls and injury, it is also about creating a workplace where people feel safe to fail and to learn from mistakes. Business and life are not perfect, neither are people. Most business success comes from trial, error and several failures. Compassionate leadership is about creating the safety for employees to learn by their own failure without the threat of dire consequences.

Acknowledging your own mistakes and failures and talking about them can be a trust-building exercise that gets the point across better than any policy or training can. The value of not being perfect is far greater than being a natural master at all aspects of your business. Courageous leaders allow others to see their failures and ask for support when they need it. This behavior dignifies everyone on the team.


In conclusion: compassion is an essential leadership skill for business success.

Caring for yourself sets a standard for others to emulate to attain sustainability for careers and businesses.

Judgment, attitude and stress are closely related and are equally important to eliminate.

Turning your solutions into questions will foster learning, growth and happiness in your company.

Showing up as an imperfect leader builds morale and a culture of mutual support.







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