Soft Leadership and Tough Compassion

Too often we have the notion that compassionate leadership is soft. Compassionate leadership isn’t soft. It’s anything but soft. It sets high expectations and expects everyone to perform at their best for the good of the team in all circumstances. It accepts nothing less than a full measure of performance and accountability. The problem is that leaders sometimes run off track when they confuse soft, coddling leadership with compassion.

Tough, compassionate leadership calls for extraordinary commitment that stretches individuals. Stretching recognizes the potential in people and calling them to a higher level of performance shows respect for them. T.S. Elliot said “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” Some leaders, fearful of the team reaction to a challenging assignment soften the load before its necessary. Rather than focus on the purpose of the task, they speak of the burden it might cause. There’s no question that the burdens are often real but by apologizing for them in advance or offering an out, we deny the team the opportunity to reach deep inside to discover their best and find a way to overcome them. Every opportunity a leader creates before it’s needed sets up a potential excuse for low performance. Doing so implies the work isn’t worth their best efforts. Lowering the expectation is even disrespectful to the individual. Tough compassion expects exceptional performance and only after its first given should we look to lighten that burden. Doing so then, is truly compassionate.

Tough, compassionate leaders stretch individuals but never leave their side. They’re sensitive to the real and different limits of every individual and respond accordingly. They recognize that while there may be differences of experience, there are no superstars on the team. Everyone is held to the same standard of performance, that being their best. That doesn’t mean though, that they take wounded or weak into battle. No team can be successful when it’s held back by individuals incapable or unwilling to give all they have. Tough compassion protects people while they give their best, not before. It acknowledges the obstacles and problems but believes in the team to overcome them. Soft leaders willing to accept less from the team will seldom see their best.

Compassionate leaders also expect more of themselves than they do of others and in doing so set the example for sacrifice and commitment. Expecting the best connotes how you feel about yourself and others. Strong compassionate leaders are also transparent. They are willing to expose their short-coming and expect others to do the same. By acknowledging their frailties, the team is actually drawn together and made strong like a rope is made strong by the weaving of individual threads.

Compassionate leaders also believe and communicate that the mission is worth their commitment and sacrifice. It says I believe in you and that together, we can do it. Also, in holding everyone, including themselves, to an expectation of high performance, leadership is making a strong statement of the potential they see in individuals and the team.

Compassionate leadership also knows when to rest. Constant pressure will wear down and demoralize any team. Creating toughness and resiliency in people means knowing when to take time off and recover. The compassionate leader watches the signs and knows that from time to time, individuals need to be pulled from the battle so they can recover and return fully energized. Take time also to celebrate the team’s hard work and commitment. Just like lowering the goal devalues the individual; failure to celebrate the win devalues the success of their sacrifice and effort.

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