The Key to Success? Compassion

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“A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others.”– General Douglas MacArthur

General MacArthur, the controversial military leader, may seem an unusual source for a quote on compassion and leadership. After all, this is the man who famously said that “in manners of war and peace, the military really knows best.”

But despite his frequent portrayal as a reactionary, MacArthur is now considered ahead of his time in many respects —including his claim that leadership should be rooted in compassion.

MacArthur’s emphasis on compassion as a key leadership competency is now entering the mainstream of contemporary leadership practice. In Good to Great, his groundbreaking book on high-performing organizations, Jim Collins determined that “the X-factor of great leadership is not personality, it’s humility.” He went on to explain that humility involves replacing personal ambition with a focus on the greater good of the leader’s organization.

And former technology CEO and noted Harvard Business School professor Bill George, most often associated with the concept of authentic leadership, has noted that “successful leaders lead with the heart, not just the head. They possess qualities like empathy, compassion and courage. They also have the ability to establish deep, long-term, and genuine relationships where others trust them.”

But just how does personal compassion make leaders more effective?

One answer can be found in the context of Emotional Intelligence.

The Emotional Intelligence Connection

The idea of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) came to prominence through the work of Dan Goleman, first in Harvard Business Review and later in his 1996 book of the same name. EQ has been consistently demonstrated to correlate highly with exceptional leadership performance: one commonly cited research statistic suggests that EQ accounts for nearly 95 percent of the difference between average and exceptional leaders.

Goleman defines EQ as an array of competencies and skills that drive leadership performance, including:

  • Self-awareness: The ability to know one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, drives, values, and goals; to recognize their impact on others; and to use this knowledge to guide decisions
  • Self-regulation: Controlling or redirecting one’s disruptive emotions and impulses and adapting to changing circumstances
  • Awareness of others: Considering other people’s feelings, especially when making decisions
  • Leading others: Managing relationships to move people in the desired direction

Closely tied to each of these competencies is compassion, which Goleman defines as “a kind of empathy in which we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed.”

Compassion, then, is the critical ingredient that enables leaders to take appropriate action in response to constant streams of emotion-based information.

The “So-What” of Compassion

Some of the benefits of compassion most relevant to leaders include:

  • Improved employee engagement, leading to increased productivity
  • Increased employee retention rates
  • Reduced stress and burnout for leaders and their teams
  • Deeper trust, resulting in faster decision making and more resilient adaptation to changing market conditions and customer requirements
  • Increased employee job satisfaction, correlating with higher customer satisfaction

Chade-Meng Tan, Google employee #107, is a former software engineer who has become the de facto spokesperson for compassion in the workplace. Known informally as Meng, he is the driving force behind Google’s acclaimed “Search Inside Yourself” emotional intelligence, neuroscience, and mindfulness program. He has built an impressive collection of case studies that show that intentionally developing the skill of compassion in Google’s leadership team has had a positive impact on business results.

Meng eloquently makes his case in a recent TED talk, Everyday Compassion at Google.

Chris Charyk Chris Charyk is an executive coach with The Boda Group. He is a graduate of Brown University and Columbia Business School, with deep expertise in marketing and strategy. Chris specializes in coaching highly accomplished technical and analytical leaders and teams. Learn more about Chris or get in touch.