Vulnerable Leadership: Why Compassion Is Much More Than a Soft Skill

Posted on September 7, 2022 by Nate Regier / 0 comments
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Compassion might have a soft side, but there’s nothing easy about it. Compassion requires bravery to provide vulnerable leadership, confidence to be humble and courage to walk the talk.

Calling compassion a soft skill is another way of saying it doesn’t matter, or isn’t relevant to the real problems leaders are facing. Compassion is usually lumped in with all the other social-emotional skills as nice to have, but not critical. The evidence that compassion in leadership and at work matters is so overwhelming that I’m not going to spend energy on those who aren’t bought in yet. I’ll let marketing guru, culture expert, and noted ruckus-maker, Seth Godin say it for me:

How dare you call them soft skills. They are real skills.”

– Seth Godin

Compassion Requires Bravery to Show Vulnerability in Leadership

One of the biggest challenges many leaders face when it comes to compassion is the vulnerability in leadership, which requires them to struggle with others. Swooping in to fix problems from a safe emotional distance is easy. Throwing money or resources at a problem is easy. Giving out advice day after day to employees who never seem to take ownership is draining, but it’s still pretty easy compared to compassion and vulnerable leadership. 

What’s missing in these examples is the vulnerability in leadership that comes with sharing your struggles with another person. Helping another person from a safe place of authority or privilege still reinforces a sense of inequity. Most people find it much easier to help than to be helped.

Compassion in leadership requires the vulnerability to open up your heart to another person.

You might not be equals on the organizational chart, but you are equals as humans.

The only way to show that is to show your human side. The literature is full of evidence proving vulnerable leadership is about getting real and connecting at a human level with employees. Vulnerable leaders are more trusted and more effective.

So why don’t more leaders open up? 

Many leaders believe all their experience, success and titles should make them enough, but yet they don’t feel enough. Change starts inside with changing that identity, and that means having vulnerability in leadership. Leaders so often aren’t comfortable with their own struggle, so they keep it hidden. If we can’t be with ourselves in the challenges, how can we be with others in their struggles?

Peace Self vs. Performance Self – Leadership Coach Amy Balog breaks it down on my podcast.

Compassion Requires The Confidence To Be Humble

As if vulnerable leadership isn’t hard enough, compassion also requires self-confidence and humility, two things that can’t exist without each other. Don’t confuse humility with self-deprecation. Ken Blanchard, one of the best selling authors and top leadership gurus on the topic of servant leadership defines humility this way, “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.”

The biggest threat to compassionate helping is ego. When we attempt to help others with the hidden motive of boosting our own ego, it is doomed from the start because it’s drama. 

Eight Signs of Ego-Based Helping That Cause Drama

  • Do you expect something in return? 
  • Do you help without being invited?
  • Do you resent people who aren’t grateful?
  • Do you feel like a martyr? 
  • Do you find yourself in the line of fire, taking a bullet for someone else?
  • Do you keep a safe emotional distance?
  • If it goes well, do you seek credit?
  • If it goes bad, do you blame yourself or blame them?

All of these behaviors arise from the same false belief; that our identity is dependent on the impact of our helping. This false belief is linked to lack of self-confidence.

Self-confidence means that we are comfortable in our skin. It means we know our value as a human is secure, not conditional on external factors. When we let go of being defined by the impact of our efforts, then we can truly focus on the person we are struggling with and provide vulnerable leadership. 

Compassion Requires The Courage To Walk The Talk

Jody Horner is the former president of Cargill Meat Solutions and Cargill Case Ready. In that role she was responsible for a multi-billion dollar corporation with over 3,000 employees that supplied some of the world’s largest retailers. During her term as president Jody facilitated a high-growth strategy through approaches that increased employee engagement while dramatically reducing turnover at all levels. She championed the successful launch of the Cargill Innovation Center, a $15 million investment, the project created a world-class destination for collaborative efforts by food scientists, microbiologists, and culinary teams engaged in research and development. 

Jody’s story is a testament to how hard it is to walk the talk. I first met Jody in her home. She was on the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Kansas at the time and was hosting a fundraising dinner. I was struck by her openness and warmth. I expected her to be tough-skinned and untouchable, especially given her role and the type of industry she was in. She doted over her bulldog, loved talking about her children, was transparent about their joys and their struggles. She was the complete embodiment of vulnerability in leadership 

As I got to know Jody better and we became friends, I asked her what it was like being a female leader in such a male-dominated industry. She shared her story of rising through the ranks. She explained that what got people promoted was to be tough and show no weakness. She explained, “Basically, I learned to act like a jerk to get ahead.” Over time, Jody realized that this wasn’t authentic. It didn’t feel right, nor was it consistent with who she was. 

Jody knew she had to align her behavior with her true self, but she was afraid and anxious. She worried that her peers would lose respect for her, that they would see her as weak. But she took the risk to walk the talk. With help from a coach coupled with her desire to make more meaningful, positive connections with people, Jody went from believing that she needed to make sure there were no chinks in her armor, being professional to a fault, to showing more of her real self at work, including telling people about her bulldog and her family. 

What happened was the exact opposite of what Jody feared most. She described it best, “My street credibility went through the roof.” Jody experienced greater levels of trust and engagement in her team because they saw her as relatable. This was a turning point for her, a moment where she realized that vulnerability in leadership was her secret weapon, and that walking the talk starts with being true to yourself and becoming a role model for what you value most.

Next time someone calls compassion soft, ask them, “Are you brave enough, confident enough and courageous enough to practice real compassion?”

Copyright Next Element Consulting, LLC 2022

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