Leaders Need Compassion—Now More Than Ever

You ask your direct report how they’re doing. “I’m doing OK,” they say.

But here’s what they’re thinking: “I’m exhausted. The past two years have been tough: COVID, isolation, George Floyd, January 6th, climate change, the war in Ukraine. Yes, I’m OK. But not really.” 

In leadership development, an image that’s used to illustrate human behavior is the iceberg. When you see someone in the workplace, you only see the tip of the iceberg—what they say and do. What you don’t see is the rest of the iceberg underwater. That part includes their thoughts, feelings, values, and experiences.

In the past two years, we’ve all added a lot to our icebergs. Below the surface, invisible to others—and sometimes to ourselves—are now traces of isolation, fear, confusion, and grief. Nearly a million Americans have died of COVID. Marisa Renee Lee, who writes about grief, recently pointed out that we may be emerging from COVID, but the grief it has generated is something we’ll live with for many years.

The tip of the iceberg has changed as well. Many people are now easily frustrated, stressed and dissatisfied. In the past year especially, I’ve noticed more fraying around the edges within teams, companies and families. 

Many are impacted by trauma. A recent Harvard Business Review article talks about the need for “trauma-informed workplaces.” Such a workplace, the article states, would operate with an understanding of the impact of trauma, and work to mitigate its effects through acknowledgement, support and trust. To that end, leaders need compassion now more than ever. But how to bring it?

Start with self-awareness. In How to be a Supportive Manager When Times are Tough, leadership author Amy Gallo points out that it’s useful to begin by understanding your own emotions. What are you feeling, and why? What do you need? For senior executives especially, the velocity of your day may obscure your ability to know what you feel and need. But those are the foundations for emotional intelligence and self care.

Cultivate self-compassion. It’s much easier to bring compassion to others when you bring compassion to yourself. Even if you’re incredibly resilient, you’ve still been through a lot these past two years. Talk to yourself as if you were talking to a dear friend. Cut yourself some slack. If you feel guilty focusing on yourself, consider this: according to Dr. Kristin Neff of the Center for Self-Compassion, research suggests that self-compassionate people are better at making sure everyone’s needs are met.

Most leaders are not trained as therapists, and yet a lot of emotional need has shown up at their doorsteps. And what do therapists do to take care of themselves? They double down on self-care and seek the support of others.

Make no assumptions—be curious. See the world through what Buddhists call “Beginner’s Mind.” Let go of what you think you know, let go of the past and future, and just be exquisitely present to what’s going on right now. Such radical presence produces powerful outcomes: research shows that curiosity is important for enterprise-level performance. What’s more, it’s easier to be compassionate when you have an open mind. 

Really connect with people. If your day consists of back-to-back meetings, you may be tempted to skip the pleasantries and dive right into work. It feels more efficient. But is it really? Remember that people have a whole world of thoughts and feelings under the surface. Don’t underestimate how much they value time with you. A few minutes of thoughtful connection helps boost spirits, solidify relationships, and increase the psychological safety which is so essential for a high-performing, diverse team.

It’s a challenging time for leaders. They have to care for not only their own hearts and minds, but also to the hearts and minds of others—all while executing on aggressive business goals. But it’s also an enormous time of promise. Trauma expert Peter Levine says that after trauma is healed, we’re ready and able to truly connect with others. Perhaps we are entering a time of deeper community. A time when we band together with renewed commitment—and compassion—to tackle our thorniest problems.