Leaders Care and Act With Compassion

Secrets of Compassionate, Caring Leadership Success

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Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and the author of "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead," got a lot of press last year with her campaign against bossy—saying that she wishes all little girls who are labeled as bossy could instead be told they have leadership skills. While Sandberg's idea is a good one, it's a little off.

Bossy and leadership couldn't be further apart. Bossy delights in telling others what to do and how to do it, with little regard to the actual humans involved. A true leader always acts with care and compassion.

Conflict Exists Between Leadership Compassion and Getting the Work Done

Leaders in the business world aren't just tasked with getting a group of people to hang on their every word but to also accomplish the work and achieve the goals. If you're managing people, you're also managing tasks and deadlines and financial goals.

A lot of pressure comes with the need to accomplish all of these tasks and it is easy to forget that accomplishing work is not the only factor that is important in your workplace.

For instance, Roger's company required that they request vacation six months in advance. He did, and his vacation was approved.

When the date rolled around, his manager was under a great deal of pressure and threatened Roger, telling him that if he went ahead and took that vacation, he would fire him. Roger took the vacation and was fired. (He's in a new job now, and much happier.)

Was the deadline important? To Roger's manager, of course, it was. It was critical. But Roger had followed the company policy of asking far, far in advance for time off and the manager wanted to pull that permission back. This action demonstrated a complete lack of compassion.

As a result, Roger's manager not only didn't have Roger around to help meet that particular deadline, he didn't have Roger the week after as well. Instead, he had to hire and train a new employee. How is that even helpful?

Sometimes, a simple lack of planning can cause a lack of compassion and care from your leadership. Roger's boss had six months notice that Roger was on vacation that week. He should have planned ahead.

Leadership Compassion and Caring Is Sometimes the Law 

If Roger hadn't wanted the time to take a vacation but instead needed to have surgery, Roger's boss would have been required to give him the time off, as long as Roger qualified for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

This law requires employers to give employees up to 12 weeks off for serious illness, injury, the birth or adoption of a child, or to take care of an ill family member. So, essentially, the law requires a boss to show care and compassion in these circumstances.

Roger's boss would probably have complained loudly and emphatically, in an effort to try to induce Roger to feel guilty about taking time off for medical reasons. (This, by the way, can be construed as FMLA interference and is illegal as well.)

Allowing an employee time off only because it was required by law doesn't make you a compassionate and caring leader, it makes you law abiding. A caring leader would show additional compassion by making sure Roger's transition back to work after surgery was as smooth as possible.

Another time the law requires care and compassion is when an employee has a disability or a religious belief that requires a reasonable accommodation. For example, if Jan's religion prohibits her from working on Sunday, as long as other staff members are available, it is compassionate and the law to give her those days off.

If Jan, instead, has diabetes and requires regular and immediate access to food, it's compassionate to let Jan eat at her desk, even if company policy otherwise prohibits this behavior—it's also the law.

Leadership Compassion and Caring Can Go Too Far

Sometimes people think displaying compassion always means doing what a coworker wants or needs. But, remember, a leader acts, not only with compassion but with care. Care for what? Care for the employee in question, undoubtedly, but care for the business and care for the customers and care for the other employees are significant components.

For instance, it may feel compassionate to allow the angry, gossiping employee to keep her job, but it's not compassionate for the rest of the office. Doing so violates the principle of care—you're no longer caring properly for the business, customers, and other staff members.

Likewise, it's not compassionate to simply correct an employee's mistakes all of the time without giving proper feedback. You're not helping the employee learn and grow if you fail to provide appropriate coaching and counseling.

As a compassionate and caring leader, you'll always need to balance compassion towards one person against the bigger picture. Most of the time, showing compassion for one employee is great for everyone. When it's not, you're not showing true compassion, you're simply enabling.

When you're in a leadership role, make sure that you remember that a good leader cares for the people she leads. Otherwise, you're not a leader, you're just a bossy boss.

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