Compassion, as defined by the third edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary, is “to feel pity, to suffer, sorrow for the sufferings or trouble of another or others, accompanied by an urge to help.” This definition contains three important elements:
- recognizing and understanding someone’s plight
- feeling for someone
- wanting to help
It is the third component that is especially important in leadership. Without wanting to help someone else, a leader’s focus lacks compassion and is not about helping others—or an organization—succeed. In Search Inside Yourself, SIYLI’s founder Chade-Meng Tan quotes Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic:
“The shift is a transformation from “I” to “we.” It is the most important process leaders go through in becoming authentic. How else can they unleash the power of their organizations unless they motivate people to reach their full potential? If our supporters are merely following our lead, then their efforts are limited t our vision and our directions… Only when leaders stop focusing on their personal ego needs are they able to develop other leaders.”
The transition from “I,” the ego, to “we” happens because of compassion. Thus, leaders with a sense of humility, combined with ambition, are the ones who end up being the most effective and inspiring. But how do you make the transition?
First, the key is to recognize the difference between managing and leading. While a manager solves, decides and delegates tasks, a leader motivates and creates autonomy by delegating responsibility. The latter requires compassion for both employees and the organization to lead them to success.
Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter and present CEO of Square, is famous for this style of leadership. In fact, he calls it an “organizational failure” if he has to make a decision. His hands-off approach means that he sees that decisions get made, but he views “the organization and the people in it as the ones to make the decisions, because they have the greatest context for what needs to be done.”
To lead by asking questions that draw out solutions from employees and to then get out of the way to allow employees to follow through with those ideas requires a great deal of compassion. A leader has to think compassionately: How would I want to be treated as an employee, and what’s best for the organization?