When I was a Staff Nurse in the 1990’s I did not want to be a strong leader. Strong leaders were everything that was wrong with the old ways of leadership. In my mind and in the mind of lots of people strong leadership meant command and control, it meant dominating, and leading with fear, but being fearless. I wanted to be a kind leader, that led from the front, but paid attention to the needs of the staff, I would be empathetic to their plight. I would pay attention to their needs. The opposite of a strong leader…oh no hang on not the opposite!
But if truth would have it, I was a weak leader. I did not set out being a weak leader, because being empathetic, and paying attention to the needs of the staff are key elements to strong effective leadership, and has been proved time and time again to be more effective than command and control. The problem with empathy and compassion in any part of life is that if a certain ingredient is missing then it is either not sustainable or worse can create division and incivility.
Lets start by looking at the definitions of empathy and compassion. I got these definitions from The Cambridge Dictionary via google today (03/05/21)
The ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences, by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.
A strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering or bad luck of others and a wish to help them.
To start with lets look at empathy. Empathy is an amazing tool to have in your toolbox, it is wonderful for building rapport and creating connections with people. The problem is, that it is very powerful so has to be handled with care and used sensitively. If you don’t it can cause you harm and harm others. Empathy if used unwisely causes division and polarisation. It is often used by the media, both social and journalistic media to encourage us to get behind a cause. Over recent years there have been a number of high profile cases where children with terminal conditions on ventilators have been caught up in legal battles between their parents, and the hospitals where they are being cared for. The legal battles were always a result of differing viewpoints on the baby’s prognosis, with the parents not being able to come to terms with the terrible reality of losing their child and the hospital wanting to withdraw treatment so as not to prolong the child’s suffering. These cases are always very distressing and create huge amounts of emotion no matter what your view of the situation is. The majority of us though have experience of loving children, whether they are our own children or the children of relatives or close friends, and conversely most of us are not clinicians faced with making terribly difficult decisions based on what the future outcomes of this baby are. So when we read about these stories in the paper and on Facebook, or we hear about them on the news, it is easy for us to feel empathy for the parents. We have felt the love they feel for their baby, and we can imagine what it feels like to have that loved one taken from you. Even imagining it causes pain, so what must it be like to live it? This can and does cause people to have very strong feelings against the clinical staff and the hospital caring for this baby. This level of empathy has lead to threats against medical and nursing staff, violent protests outside of hospitals and courts and ultimately leads to more pain and anger on both sides of the argument, and all the time there is still a baby that requires love, care and attention. If you about recent armed conflicts, many if not all of them have been fueled by empathy. Either as a result of protecting groups of people from a perceived oppression or to right a terrible wrong. During the conflict, the fighting is so sustained and aggressive because of empathy, most soldiers will explain that they do not fight for the flag or the nation, but for each other. So empathy adds fuel to the fighting.
That is what empathy can do on a collective level if care is not taken. On a personal level empathy can cause pain and exhaustion. Imagining peoples distress and putting yourself in their position is painful, it takes it’s toll, and in the end you wither become exhausted and unable to show empathy or you avoid it to protect yourself. When I think of my time as a new leader. I jumped into being empathetic and compassionate as a leader without any thought for my own safety. I never thought it would be detrimental to my health. No one told me that without the right precautions empathy was bad for you health and bad for the world.
Regulate Your Emotion
The good thing is that like many powerful tools if you are prepared and know how to use it, it is incredibly useful. All we have to do is learn how to regulate our emotions.
Before you use empathy or compassion you have to do some work on yourself. The first step is to understand your emotions, and accept them. In other words stop denying them space in your mind. Stop labelling them good and bad emotions, just label them as your emotions. Emotions are sending you a message about something that is important to you. For instance the feelings of sadness and loss, when someone we love dies is because our relationship with them was important to us. It held high value, and not having that relationship causes us pain. That is the price of loving, however most of us agree that the emotion is love is far more valuable, so we are prepared to pay the price, so we can experience that feeling. Labelling our emotions and listening to what they have to tell us, helps us regulate the impact our emotions have on us. Recently I have been speaking to nurses who have been working on COVID wards during the pandemic, and hearing their stories have provoked some strong emotions for me, including sadness, and guilt. Sadness comes from imagining how they feel having cared for patients who have died and then multiplying the impact of that feeling, along with my own emotions regarding loss, and feeling guilty because I am an ex-nurse not physically nursing. Both emotions needed attention and understanding what messages they were telling me. I then was able to take some time out to attend to those messages to ensure I could continue to show empathy and be compassionate.
Once you you have started to label and understand your emotions, it is important as I did to attend to what is important to you, to replenish your batteries. This is something I have mentioned before but it is so important during times when our lives are stressful and we are being empathetic and compassionate to to those around us. That is allocate yourself and hour of happiness or contentment everyday. Something that brings you pleasure and a sense of calm. Something that reflects what you value will always create that feeling.
Regulating your emotions in this way allows you to continue to be empathetic and compassionate without burning out. It also alerts you to when you might be being sucked into a collective empathy that is divisive, as the stories that provoke this empathy stir up strong emotions, so spending a moment labelling and being curious about your emotion slows you thinking down and gives you chance to have a more considered view from both sides of the argument. When you understand your emotion you are much more likely to be able to hear what others are feeling.
Being a Strong Compassionate Leader
Being compassionate is not the opposite to being strong. Being a compassionate leader requires strength.
Being compassionate means that you want to help improve the situation for someone. Doing the right thing will often require difficult conversations, it is not just doing nice things to make people feel better, it is about improving outcomes for people and for teams.
As a result compassion is about being able to regulate your emotions, so you are able to make decisions and take actions that are in the best interest of the individual and ultimately the team. If you are reluctant to show empathy, for fear of either becoming emotional, or because you are just too tired, you will not be able to hear what the people in you team require for them to do their jobs effectively. By not regulating your emotions you are more likely to either try to please someone rather than do what is right, or dismiss their concerns so you can protect yourself from their emotion. Both responses are short-term self serving and ultimately weak leadership. If you have spent sometime labelling and understanding your emotions you are much more willing to hear what people are experiencing, show them empathy and be able to develop with them a compassionate response that supports the individual and the team.
Empathy and Compassion are only effective when accompanied with emotional regulation.
If you would like to explore more about you own emotional regulation and developing your leadership. Send me a message. (firstname.lastname@example.org)