Compassionate Leadership: A book review by Bob Morris

Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way
Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter with Marissa Afton and Moses Mohan
Harvard Business Review Press (January 2022)

Alvin Toffler nailed it.

“The illiterate of the 21st century,” Toffler observes in Future Shock (l970), “will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

In this book written with Marissa Afton and Moses Mohan, Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter explain why leaders in all organizations — whatever their size and nature may be — must  be sensitive to  and aware of the fact that their decisions often have great impact on other people’s lives. “They need to tell someone they did not get the promotion. They need to close an office, cancel a product, or manage an unpopular change. They need to give people tough feedback or let someone know they no longer have a job.”

Much has been said and written in recent years about how to balance an individual’s obligations at work with obligations elsewhere. Hougaard and Carter assert that leaders need to balance compassion (concern for the welfare of others) and wisdom (courage to say or do what must be said or done), however difficult that may be. The greatest leaders demonstrate both empathy and conviction in their relationships with others. (That is also true of the most effective parents, educators, coaches, counselors, and anyone else in a position to supervise those entrusted to their care.) There are frequent occasions when compassion must temper candor…and vice versa.

Many people probably view the skills that compassionate leadership requires as being “soft” and unmeasurable when in fact they can have a significant, quantifiable impact. In this context, I am again reminded of this observation by Theodore Roosevelt many years ago: “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Assisted by Afton and Mohan, Hougaard and Carter conducted wide and deep research, guided and informed by two proprietary tools: Compassionate Leadership Assessment and Mindgrow. (They are explained in the Appendix, Pages 201-206.) Hougaard and Carter then share what they and their associates learned from research in this book. More specifically, these are the objectives they can help almost anyone to achieve.

HOW to

o Lead as an authentic human being to improve followership, commitment, and sense of belonging
o Provide guidance to others on leading with skillful means to serve the given company’s purpose
o Ensure that everyone is mindful of the greater good
o Connect with others while doing what must be done, however difficult and unpleasant it may be.
o Silence your “inner critic” and embrace strong self-compassion
o Recognize and avoid the “busyness trap”…and help others to do so
o Cultivate greater awareness of your own mind as well as others’ mental experiences
o Help others to choose courage over comfort and overcome fear-based boundaries
o Apply caring directness (i.e. candor) in messages to expedite necessary conversations
o Be transparent, “present now,” and clear in all interactions with others

Note: Hougaard and Carter make this distinction: Empathy is feeling what others feel whereas compassion is being motivated by those feelings to [begin italics] do something [end italics] that is helpful and supportive as well as appropriate to the given situation.

They include a covey of strategies for “unlearning [command and control] management and relearning being human”:

1. Remember the Golden Rule
(Note: You may prefer the Platinum Rules: “Do unto others as they wish to be treated.)
2. Put yourself in their shoes.
3. Listen intensively.
4. Always give more than you take.
5. Ask yourself: “How can I be of greatest benefit?”
6. Stretch people to help them see their greater potential.
7. Help them to recognize what they really need in order to be happy.

I presume to add another timeless bromide: “Your have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth. Spend at least 80% of your time observing and listening; no more than 20% of your time speaking.”

Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine could possibly do full justice to the material provided in a book such as Compassionate Leadership. Moreover, the value of that material will be determined almost entirely by how well those who read the book absorb and digest the information, insights, and counsel, and then how effectively they select and apply what is most relevant to the given circumstances.

However different they may have been in most respects, all of the best leaders I have personally observed shared the same values expressed in my favorite passage from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know;
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

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