Why I’m so passionate about compassionate leadership
As a former Diplomat for both Australia and the United Nations Refugee Agency, I’ve been responsible for leading teams to achieve extraordinary results, often in very challenging circumstances. I’ve held senior roles in more than 15 countries including Kenya, Turkey and China, some for periods of up to 3 years and some for as few as a few weeks. I know what it is like to have to build a cohesive and effective team quickly.
In addition to being a leader, I have worked for many different leaders with many different styles. Before diplomatic service, I worked in an eclectic array of industries including fast food, retail, business, government and non-profit; and at all rungs of the corporate ladder; from volunteer to a junior employee to middle management and ultimately to a senior leader in an embassy.
What I have learned is this:
- effective leadership is essential to an organisation’s success
- effective leadership requires both compassion and competence
- While it is possible to be compassionate but not competent, it is not possible to be competent and not compassionate
- It is the right of every employee to enjoy their day at work, and it is reckless and callous for a leader to knowingly engage in toxic behaviour.
What I have observed is this:
- Leaders’ unable to control their tempers or modify their responses in times of pressure cause needless harm to staff and are less effective than calm leaders.
- Leaders with the misguided belief that staff perform better when they are intimidated or insecure. These leaders either don’t understand the role of leadership to optimise staff performance, or they don’t recognise the basic human need to feel esteem.
Regrettably, over the years, I’ve worked with or for many toxic leaders, and I have witnessed the damage they cause.
I’ve worked for leaders who guard information as a source of power and restrict staff members access to senior management. I’ve worked for leaders who take credit for the work of others and is quick to blame others when something goes wrong. I’ve worked for more than a few leaders who don’t trust staff to make decisions and one leader who never offered praise but was careful to document criticism. I’ve witnessed many leaders who show no interest in their staff and what they have to offer and a few who clearly favoured some while ignoring others.
I’ve also worked for or observed leaders who interact with staff kindly but are incompetent. Often, in this instance incompetence in is because they have been unable to create working environments that support staff to perform at optimal capacity. Or leaders who mistakenly think that it is kind to ignore poor performance. These leaders do not understand that conversations to improve performance, while not easy, are kind. Leaders who ignore bad performance are letting down their organisation and other staff, they are also letting down the badly-behaved or underperforming staff member.
But not only are toxic leaders inadequate at their jobs, but they are also afflictions upon society and the world. Full-time staff spend more than a third of their waking lives at work. If they work in an unhappy and unhealthy environment, they will be miserable or angry.
Often, unhappy people trigger unhappiness in others. Through contagion, unhappy workplaces spread dissatisfaction locally, nationally and in a connected world, globally. Wow – I know that’s a big statement but that’s why I’m so passionate about compassionate leadership.
I believe that it is the moral obligation of every CEO, manager and leader to ensure that their workplace is happy.
Based on my experience, I know that compassionate and competent leadership can be learned. With this knowledge, I’m on a mission to rid the world of arsehole leaders.
The simplest way to achieve this is to ensure that leaders everywhere commit to compassionate and competent leadership.
Professional Officer, UNHCR Turkey (Van office)
(2008 – 2009)