The Most Needed, but Counter-Intuitive Leadership Skill: Self-Compassion

Let me confess that I was a reluctant convert to self-compassion. Before I really understood it, I thought it was soft, squishy, and something I didn’t need. But a few years ago, my colleague tricked me into reading the book Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff when I’d agreed to do a book club together, and let him pick the book. I thought for sure he would pick something about science or leadership. Instead, when he picked self-compassion, I groaned a bit, but agreed. Starting the book, I quickly realized three things: there’s a lot of academic research on self-compassion, it is a key leadership skill, and I desperately needed it. 

Rich and I recently wrote Self-Compassion Will Make You a Better Leader for Harvard Business Review because of how meaningful self-compassion has been for us as we’ve navigated through this year. We believe that self-compassion is an essential leadership skill and one that is all the more important right now amidst uncertainty, stress and challenge. Researchers Larry Stevens and C. Chad Woodruff recently reviewed a wide array of studies on the subject and highlighted some very compelling benefits, including an enhanced capacity to broaden perspective and increased motivation, resilience and compassion for others—all core emotional intelligence areas. 

Despite the recent research, self-compassion is frequently misunderstood—it’s generally everything you think it isn’t. Most of us associate self-compassion with being soft, or fear that it will make us complacent or lose our drive. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Put simply, self-compassion means treating yourself like you would a friend, especially in the face of setbacks, mistakes and failures; it’s an essential strength for resilience. Though counter-intuitive, we believe that self-compassion is a missing ingredient needed for authentic and courageous leadership in today’s world. 

Why is self-compassion so useful to maintain mental clarity and emotional balance and build resilience? It’s because self-compassion allows you to keep perspective and face challenges without either becoming harshly self-critical or unrealistically inflating our self-esteem, and without blaming others. In an experiment by Mark Leary and his colleagues, study participants recalled the worst thing that had happened to them in the previous four days. Comparing participants who were low and high in self-compassion, the study found that “participants high in self-compassion reported that they kept the situation more in perspective.” 

Enhancing self-compassion skills allows you to make a critical shift from constriction and burn-out toward expansion and learning. In a research study by professors Serena Chen and Jia Wei Zhang, for example, people who exercised self-compassion engaged in fewer negative thoughts and self-doubts, and in turn, were less afraid of social disapproval and were more optimistic. By boosting a positive outlook and reducing anxiety of peer disapproval, self-compassion creates the courage to learn from past mistakes and to do what you know is right or best for the organization and greater good. 

Leadership has long been defined by the ability to take risks and learn from setbacks, and this is all the more vital now. You might be afraid that self-compassion will lower your standards and that you’ll lose your ambition, however Kristin Neff’s research shows that self-compassionate people have similarly high standards as those who lack self-compassion. However, those with high self-compassion are much less likely to be unduly and unproductively hard on themselves if they didn’t meet their own standards. Instead of letting setbacks erode your motivation or performance, self-compassion can buffer you by supporting a positive, caring attitude towards yourself. 

Even in extreme cases where significant trauma may be present, self-compassion can provide a corrective. In a study of trauma-exposed US veterans from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, researchers found that highly self-compassionate vets were less likely to develop PTSD than those with low self-compassion. The study indicates that self-compassion is a powerful approach to building resilience even in the most difficult circumstances. This suggests that leaders have much to gain from exercising self-compassion in the face of adversity.

SIYLI added a dedicated section on self-compassion to the Search Inside Yourself program several years ago in recognition of the growing research on the many benefits of self-compassion. In addition, in SIY we emphasize building attentional skills with an attitude of curiosity and kindness. In this way, even when not explicit, self-compassion underpins everything we do.

By supporting you to show up with more perspective, optimism, and connection, self-compassion helps you to be the leader you want to be.  Especially for leaders facing tough choices about pay cuts, furloughs or layoffs, self-compassion is counter-intuitively necessary for quality decision-making and skillful, wise action. Self-compassion also allows you to manage the ups and downs of making decisions and taking action in the midst of uncertainty, making it the leadership skill for this moment.

To Build Your Self-Compassion

It turns out, self-compassion is not squishy at all—concrete practices have helped me face challenges and difficult feelings squarely and head on where I had previously been skipping over my own feelings and jumping hastily to action. Self-compassion allows me to recognize and calm my own feelings of anxiety, anger, fear, or hurt before looking for external solutions—a critical part of being less reactive and more deliberate, a key work and leadership skill. 

First, it helps to understand what it’s made of. Dr. Kristin Neff defines self-compassion as having three components: 

  • Mindfulness: being aware of our own suffering without over-identifying with it
  • Common Humanity: recognizing that we’re not alone in what we’re going through
  • Self-Kindness: treating ourselves well

You can train a self-compassionate mindset in many ways. We suggested a few in our article Self-Compassion Will Make You a Better Leader, and here a few more practices:

For more, we recommend Kristen Neff’s book Self-Compassion and offerings from the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion

Steph Stern, SIYLI's Director of Global Expansion