Leading with compassion: Emerging lessons from Covid19



By Isabelle François, President of WIIS Brussels, and Marta Martinelli, Vice-President of WIIS Brussels


On 22 March 2020, after two weeks of self-imposed quarantine, German Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed her nation in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, sharing the pains of confinement. She was perceived as an anchor of stability in the face of upheaval. On 5 April, Queen Elizabeth II addressed her nation and was credited for reassuring her people in the battle against the pandemic. In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden went further by addressing directly the children to reassure them on the eve of Easter. The Covid19 crisis seems to show a correlation between leadership qualities in times of crises and women leadership styles. This emerging lesson begs the question of what are these leadership qualities that people seem to value and crave for right now. It also points to a need for a different understanding of leadership worldwide as we move towards an uncertain future.


What principles underpin leading with compassion?


Leading with compassion stems from the ability to lead from within, to relate to and connect with people, so as to empower them and inspire them to stretch their thinking and innovate in the face of new challenges. It stems from the ability to “suffer with” and to convey the sense that we are all in this together; that we face the same risks and abide by the same rules. It runs opposite to an understanding of leadership that is hierarchical, coming from the top down, from being better informed and having exceptional skills. It points to the need for a genuine connection between those who lead and those who are lead.


Contrary to popular wisdom leading with compassion is not about soft, ‘feminine’ leadership. It actually is a power skill that can be exercised by men and women alike. It is about empowering others, searching for new ways, and taking risks to innovate. While empathy is an asset, compassion is about acting on it, being pro-active, caring for each other. Leading with kindness is paying attention to voices from the bottom-up and developing solutions collaboratively.


What does that mean in practice?


Leading with compassion in the face of Covid19 is first recognising the trauma and anxiety, acknowledging the “overwhelm” within society. Second, it demands inclusive solutions that respond to the various voices in society, and correspond to the actual needs on the ground. It is anchored in truth, honesty and authenticity, and demands clear communication. Much criticism has been leveled against leaders worldwide on this particular score.


For the many leaders of communities, organizations, companies, leading with compassion requires a lot of listening and spending time with people, chatting with employees, walking the corridors and nurturing existing relationships, while developing new ones. It is about staying connected to realize that there is no system that fits all, that everyone has their own way of coping with life, and that the separation between personal and professional lives is highly superficial. As the coronavirus crisis has shown, leading with compassion is about recognizing that efficiency, ensuring business continuity, and focusing on results over the well-being of people is not the right model. People’s mental and emotional space shift in crisis time, and leading with compassion is to allow for it and support it.


Leading with compassion in times of crisis also requires different communication methods. It is important to help colleagues open up on their difficulties through generative questions, coaching one’s environment through these challenges. Compassionate leaders convey hope by (re)framing situations through a positive mental framework, so as to make people feel resourceful, safe and secure. They build trust by creating a collaborative environment where everyone’s opinion is welcome, and everyone’s voice is important, rather than operating through cliques and inner circles.


For all those teleworking at the time of Covid19, technological means of communication have enabled leaders to be compassionate and to give priority to seeing people and talking to them, instead of pushing work through emails assuming that copying colleagues would be sufficient to ensure teamwork. For many leaders it has also meant having to stretch their personal boundaries and admit to their vulnerabilities, making them more human.


Finally, leading with compassion acknowledges the limits of one’s own expertise in a complex world, and relies on a network of teams, instead of a command and control structure. As Covid19 will continue to show, consolidating decision-making at the top and controlling information are ultimately far less powerful than collaboration and transparency, relying on a healthy and open debate to protect society from excessive power.


Way ahead?


The pandemic changed our lives fundamentally from one day to the next, and we will live with the consequences for a long time to come. To many this statement will generate negative thoughts, but to compassionate leaders it will ring positive, as a significant opportunity for change.


The world so far has put a premium on leaders who were smart, agile, excellent strategists; people who could see the big picture and were visionaries, decisive, and who could put together an effective action plan. They relied heavily on their heads and they guided us to achieve effectiveness and performance. Covid19 has brought to the fore the need for different leadership qualities – heart-based qualities where analytical and emotional intelligence can be deployed hand in hand.

As we look to the future, leaders will need more self-awareness, more openness, and mindfulness to face the next level of challenges. The point is not to choose one leadership style over another. The point is that heart-based qualities are a requirement for modern leaders, expected to treat people with a greater sense of respect, dignity, care and humanity. This is a pre-requisite if the world is to move towards greater fulfillment and well-being, where leadership at various levels allows everyone to thrive instead of merely survive.


Photo credits: Flickr/ Creative Commons: Ulysse Bellier