Self-Compassion is What Makes Good Leaders the Greatest

Smart people tend to want to prove themselves by accomplishing a lot within a short period of time.

In holding our feet to the fire, we also tend to be extremely hard on ourselves. For many, there seems to be a deeply rooted belief that in order to be a highly successful leader, continual stress comes with the territory.

We tell ourselves this is how we “get good.” And, admittedly, it may have worked for a time. But it becomes a cycle of never enough and of never-ending stress.

And it’s not a long-term strategy. How could it be? Stress, fatigue, burn-out and plain ole discouragement from our stinkin’ thinkin’ would take its toll on anyone – at best, slowing us down and, at worst, setting the stage for longer-term unproductive struggles in our work and personal relationships.

If left unchecked, it negatively affects performance in the workplace. And it doesn’t have to be like this.

Self-Compassion is the Foundation of Leadership

“Try to feel compassion for how difficult it is to be an imperfect human being in this extremely competitive society of ours…
We’re told that no matter how hard we try, our best just isn’t good enough.”

-Kristin Neff

Our workplaces have become full of discontentment. According to Gregory Stebbins and co-author Marcos Cajina, writing in the Huffington Post, a 2013 Gallup poll revealed shocking results:

-87% of capable employees reported being disengaged

We need to let go of the old ways of leadership. And that means, say the authors, opening the door to self-compassion.

Compassion Makes Leaders More Resilient

Many professionals are experiencing unprecedented record stress levels, brought on not only by the global pandemic and its far-reaching effects, but the political unrest in the world as well.

We’re a world hungry for compassion.

Writing in Forbes, Rebecca Zucker relates her conversation with Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself and also The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, noting how vital compassion is during these tumultuous times. While offering it to others, we must also offer it to ourselves. Zucker notes:

“…self-compassion is a muscle we can build that makes us more resilient over time and allows us to be more optimistic.”

According to Neff, self-compassion consists of three components:

  1. Become mindful and aware of your suffering and acknowledge it.
  2. Be kind to yourself, showing the same care and concern you would give to a child who is suffering.
  3. Realize and remind yourself that you are part of this large community that is humanity. Oftentimes, we feel as if we are suffering all alone when, in fact, we are one among many.

Neff states that when we are aware of our suffering, it is then that we should do something kind for ourselves, like taking a day off, indulging in a nap, or even a long walk. And it’s also good to have support from others.

There is often a cultural roadblock to self-compassion, that somehow being soft with ourselves means we won’t get ahead or be successful. But, it’s actually the opposite that is most often true:

Self-encouragement is shown to be a more effective motivator than self-criticism.

There are gender barriers as well to self-compassion. Women, socialized to care for others, often believe self-compassion is a selfish act, while men can view it as a display of weakness.

Self-Esteem or Self-Compassion?

There is a difference. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Serena Chen notes self-esteem generally involves judging one’s self in comparison to others. Self-compassion has no judgement involved:  it creates a sense of wellbeing.

Kristin Neff digs deeper. Self-esteem is how we judge ourselves positively, how much we value ourselves in comparison with those around us. Self-compassion, meanwhile, is how we relate to ourselves. it shows the interconnection with other humans, instead of a separateness.

As a result, Neff states, with self-compassion:

  • We don’t have to feel better than other people to feel good about ourselves.
  • We don’t need others to feel good about ourselves.

Self-compassion shares many of the same benefits as self-esteem, and though it may not seem so at first, helps us to ultimately focus on a “we” rather than a “me” mentality – as we begin to sense our interconnectedness with all others.

Self-Compassion: A Solid Foundation for Authentic Leaders

self-compassionCarol Dweck, psychology professor at Stanford University, states self-compassion supports what she calls a ‘growth mindset.”

Those with a growth mindset:

-view personal abilities and traits as changeable, see potential for growth and are more likely to maintain positive and optimistic outlooks.

Those with a fixed mindset:

see personal abilities, including their own, as set in stone, believing people will be the same five years from now.

In her research, those who were encouraged to have compassion for themselves in situations where they felt they did wrong reported being more motivated to make amends and not repeat the same error.

Most importantly for leaders, a self-compassion mindset spreads to others. Having compassion for oneself in turn encourages compassion for others. All the characteristics of compassion, like non-judgement and genuine caring, are absorbed by others.

Chen cites research by Jia Wei Zhang that shows that leaders who take on a growth mindset – who believe that change IS possible – tend to notice changes in employees’ performances and intervene to give feedback for improvement.

Employees, in turn, can discern this mindset in their leader, and as a result, are more likely to adopt growth mindsets, too. Truly, this is leading by setting a good example.

Cultivating Self-Compassion is a Skill

Like anything, developing self-compassion it is a skill that needs practice. Chen identifies a psychologist’s checklist for self-compassion: Ask:

Am I:

  1. being kind to myself?
  2. aware that everyone has shortcomings and makes mistakes?
  3. keeping uncomfortable feelings in their proper light?

An easier method, Chen also advises, could be: write yourself a letter in the third person – write to yourself as if you were writing to a dear friend in need of compassion. What would you say to him/her?  What tone would you use?  How would you like this dear friend to see him/herself?

“A good leader leads the people from above them. A great leader leads the people from within them.” M.D. Arnold

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To Become a More Intentional Leader, Start Journaling

The achievements of John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, Ernest Hemingway, and Marie Curie are well-known to many of us.

As diverse as their careers may be, they shared a common practice: journaling.

While writing down their thoughts, visions, and desires, they chronicled their journey through life. Today, we can read through their written history and glean details into their personal selves.

Perhaps they knew long before we did the value of journaling.  On the surface level, it can be a peaceful reprieve from our frantic 24-7 workdays. And, it is also so much more.

“Journaling is paying attention to the inside for the purpose of living well from the inside out.”

-Lee Wise

Journaling: A Healing Ointment for a Hurting World

Although many of us have good intentions to improve ourselves, we oftentimes find excuses that keep us from our self-improvement goals.

Whether it’s taking time to affirm each day, practicing self-care, or even journaling to self-reflect, we make the usual excuses:

  • We’re too busy.
  • Interruptions get in the way.
  • It’s a waste of our time.

We’re only kidding ourselves.

Henna Inam confesses in Transformational Leadership that she too, found many other things she’d rather do than journal – until she read that many successful people, including US Presidents, kept a daily journal.

She admits that got her attention. Inam recommends journaling to all her executive coaching clients. By putting thoughts down on paper, Inam says journaling relieves the mind of mental burdens that left unchecked, can spiral into negative thoughts.

She notes its transformative benefits: we get greater insights into ourselves and others – and it can improve our health.

Inam offers up 10 suggestions for journaling. Here are some key ones:

  1. Purchase an attractive journal. It becomes a central place for our thoughts. No scrap papers.
  2. If you get stuck, write down what you’re grateful for and why.
  3. List out goals and keep track of them.
  4. During difficult days, write down insights into any emotion that comes up.

Deepok Chopra and Kabir Sehgal writing in Make It, noted four benefits journaling can have in our lives:

  1. Leads us to ‘see’ our thoughts and feelings to make better sense of them
  2. Assists in recovering from stressful events
  3. Enhances our problem-solving skills
  4. Helps us to learn deeper lessons more quickly so we can move on to brighter situations.

Experts say that taking just 15 minutes each day, three to five times a week, can have a significant impact on our physical and mental well-being.

Journaling is a gift to ourselves, part of an overall self-care routine.

We can discover more about how we’re really feeling, and what we want to accomplish – both of which are key first steps to greater self-awareness, the first step in leadership. Self-discovery is a powerful tool, and journaling assists us in our efforts as we review daily encounters:

  • Are we reacting – or responding – to triggers?
  • How do we feel about ourselves when faced with stressful conditions?
  • Next year at this time, where do we see ourselves?

How Journaling Can Help Enhance Our Leadership Capability

Great leaders take time to reflect, writes Nancy Adler in Harvard Business Review.

And what better way to gain insight into one’s self and others than to journal, even for just a few minutes each day?

It’s a quiet time to hear what we have to say to ourselves. Adler suggests asking:

  • How am I feeling about my own leadership?
  • How do I feel right now?
  • What contributed to my happiness this week?

Go beyond your work environment, Adler suggests. Look at a painting and ask, what do I see? If you connect what you see in the painting to your current situation, what new vantage points are revealed to you.

As Adler summed up:

Using a journal regularly will give you the courage to see the world differently, to understand the world differently and to lead in new and needed ways.

In pandemic – and post-pandemic times – our world is craving innovative, inspired leadership.

The New Year is a perfect time to begin journaling.

We can discover ourselves, our inner gifts, and realize out-of-the-box solutions we might ordinarily have overlooked.

“Journal writing, when it becomes a ritual for transformation, is not only life-changing

but life-expanding.” – Jen Williamson

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For Successful Leadership, Leverage the Mighty Power of Affirmations

The simple things in life are the ones we often glance over – without any thought.

And yet, that is where the biggest part of our power lies: in our thoughts.

How many times have we experienced it to be true that the outside world is a reflection of what’s going on in the inside”?

In other words, whatever is going on in our lives is a mirror to how we may be feeling or what we may be thinking: if we are thinking positively and feeling expansively, then we are setting the stage for higher-level circumstances in our lives and work. If we are not, well, then the opposite has a larger chance of occurring.

If we tell ourselves we are incapable of something, we are likely to sabotage ourselves and not accomplish that thing. If we tell ourselves we are not good enough, we will likely find ourselves in situations in which we show ourselves that we are not.

In other words, whatever we focus on in the secret place of our minds, the universe dutifully brings to us.

Indeed, in leadership and in life, many people have discovered a simple, yet profound truth:

What we say verbally (and internally, via self-talk) eventually materializes into our conscious experience.

We can affect what we want to be or do or have by consciously choosing what we tell ourselves.

And, yes, while that might very well sound woo-woo, there is actually quite a bit of scientific research backing it up.

Leverage the Power of Affirmations to Achieve Success

Numerous studies have noted the positive effects that affirmations provide.

Research at the Annenberg School for Communication, collaborating with University of Michigan and UCLA, discovered what happens in our brains while we practice self-affirmations.

Affirmations, like prayer, actually change the brain on a cellular level—in other words, what you think about matters—a lot. “Thoughts have a direct connection to your health,” says Dr. Joseph Dispenza, author of Physics, the Brain and Your Reality:

“Thoughts make a chemical. If you have happy thoughts, then you’re producing chemicals that make you feel happy. Negative, angry thoughts and fearful thoughts also produce chemicals to make you feel how you’re thinking.”

Neurons connect in your brain by attaching to thoughts and memories. Thoughts then become organized into a pattern. For example: The feeling of love is stored in a pattern. Each person builds his/her concept of love from many different ideas and experiences, explains Dispenza.

What Exactly Are Affirmations, Anyway?

 “Affirmations are statements you make to yourself — declarations of what you wish to be”.

– Sharon Janis

 “Every thought you think and every word you speak is an affirmation. All of our self-talk, our internal dialogue, is a stream of affirmations. You’re using affirmations every moment whether you know it or not. You’re affirming and creating your life experiences with every word and thought.”

– Louise Hay

As Bryan Goodwin wrote in Affirmations for Better Leadership, saying affirmations with confidence awakens the subconscious mind, thereby causing it to pay more attention to our affirmation – and less attention to that which we are critical of ourselves for.

While affirmations should be your own words, Rick Clonlow writing in LinkedIn shares some good examples to inspire us:

-I am achieving dramatic success in my work.

-I am a good listener.

-I am working smarter, not harder.

True Leaders Speak Authentic Affirmations

When acknowledging achievements done by their team, authentic leaders offer congratulatory praise that is genuine – and personally directed.

Enzo M. Battista-Dowds PhD. RD noted in The Ascent that when we are not genuine, our affirmations aren’t, either.  After all, our listeners can easily tell – by our tone of voice or by our energy – when we are not being genuine with our words.

For example, a leader may tell an employee that they are brilliant, excellent and exceptional, but as Battista-Dowds states, if they are not specific to the person, there is no depth to these words. They are merely empty words that a person with little self-esteem will most likely disregard. To change this disbelief, Battista-Dowds suggests a double affirmation.

Start with a value affirmation and end with a quality affirmation that is specific to the person. This creates compelling affirmations. Examples from Battista-Dowds:

“Your teamwork is fantastic. You’re collaborative.

Your service is stellar. You’re professional.”

Context is everything, says Batista-Dowds, and “doubling-up” is even more powerful. An employee hears their service is stellar and then acknowledges their work is stellar because they are a professional.

Our world yearns for positivity and compassion. An authentic leader inspires others with meaningful and genuine words of praise, specifically tailored for each team member. Employees are uplifted and motivated – a win-win atmosphere in any organization.

We Can Affirm Our Way to Success With Positive Statements

Affirmations needn’t be complex – they are simply positive statements we make that focus on whatever it is that we desire to accomplish.

To be most effective, they are to be repeated frequently and with a strong conviction to create a fundamental shift in our subconscious so that our inner system truly believes in what we are telling it.

Just as important as affirming regularly is surrounding ourselves with people who support us with empowering thoughts. Amy Morin in Psychology Today says the company we keep says a lot about us: we begin to act like the people we surround ourselves with. This is why it is important to associate with those who raise us up.

Affirmations should be words of our own choosing. We can speak them, too, as if we are talking to a friend. Speak in the present tense.

To normalize the affirmation in your thinking, repeat it 10 times for a few minutes, twice daily.

Be consistent. Remember, we often are uprooting decades of thought patterns that create limiting effects for us. Stay grounded in what you want to create for yourself.

And, as the old saying goes, “Act as if.” Doing so helps influence our subconscious mind more effectively so that it believes in the truth of our affirmative statement.

Yes, it really is true: we do have the power to change ourselves. It is within each of us. As we tell ourselves powerful, positive thoughts, we can be witness as our outer world transforms.

“Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.”

—Napoleon Hill

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Why Every Leader Needs to Set (& Keep) Boundaries

Without boundaries, we lose ourselves.

Boundaries are like guideposts on the road. Each one we set for ourselves directs us in a specific direction. Just as a road sign says, “no U-turn” or “no detours,” our personal boundaries dictate what is – and is not – acceptable.

Admittedly, boundaries are tough. We want to do everything for everyone and never ask for help for ourselves.

We feel guilty saying no to a friend or colleague, believing it’s a sign of selfishness or weakness. And yet, without boundaries, we set ourselves up for saying ‘no’ – to our own highest good.

A lack of boundaries fosters an atmosphere of no respect.

“As a leader, you are always going to get a combination of two things: What you create and what you allow.”

 -Henry Cloud

Setting the Right Tone in the Workplace

To be a truly impactful leader, setting boundaries is a must. Fostering relationships with employees is important, as it can cultivate a positive, productive work atmosphere. Yet Victor Lipman points out in Forbes that as a manager, to be friends with employees, boundaries are a necessity.

Lipman refers to a Harvard Business Review Management tip of the day:

“To Be Friends with Your Employees, Set Clear Boundaries”

While leader-employee friendships can be beneficial, a healthy distance should be maintained. When sensitive or personal topics arise, know what – and what not – to say.

Lipman notes that employee/leader friendships can be risky, such as when disciplinary action might need to be taken. It’s definitely a grey area that needs to be monitored, he explains.

Carol Sankar, writing in Inc., is more specific and offers suggestions for leaders to consider boundaries in the following areas:

  1. Time: No need to respond to every call or email. Not everything is a priority.
  2. Social Media: Does it feel like your social media feed is a never-ending stream of stress? Turn it off. Set specific times during the day to check social media – and stick to it.
  3. Self-care: make it a priority. Cutting back on your obligations can help lower stress levels while boosting your confidence as well. Say “yes” to self-care and “no” to all the things in your life that aren’t serving your highest good.
  4. Finances: Emphasize the best solution – not necessarily the best price or the “bottom line.”

The Consequences of Not Setting Boundaries

The guru of leadership coaching development and consulting, Dr. Henry Cloud, has written over 20 books on the subject of boundaries.

In an interview with Dr. Cloud, Dan Schawbel in Forbes discussed boundaries for leaders. Those who don’t set boundaries foster a laundry list of disagreeable results, including:

  • lack of a clear direction to engage and focus talents
  • confusion and an unmotivated workforce
  • stifled employee performance and morale

To promote boundaries, Dr. Cloud highlights critical boundaries he believes leaders must set.

A few these are:

  1. Boundaries that clearly focus on what is crucial and that block out distractions.
  2. Boundaries that lead to a positive emotional atmosphere – which leads to higher brain functioning.
  3. Boundaries that focus on keeping people connected – not isolated.

What Happens When a Boundary is Overstepped?

It happens. When it does, Cloud says it’s a clear example that a team has need of leadership boundaries. To resolve the issue, use it as an opportunity to talk with the entire team on behaviors to implement in such situations. When agreed upon behaviors are in place, resolution is more easily obtained.

And for any team – even completely dysfunctional ones –  defining a shared purpose, specific goals, outlining shared team behaviors and values and how to accomplish them are examples of boundaries that need to be in place.

Instead of arguing over each incident that occurs, Cloud explains, it is vital to come together and agree on goals that will achieve positive results – and stick to them.

Setting Boundaries Isn’t Just Important for Leadership

It can be hard for most of us to set boundaries.

But setting limits is an essential part of healthy living. In Psychology Today, Karen Kleiman offers tips for setting boundaries. They may take a bit of practice, but the benefits are worth it. A few of her suggestions to start putting boundaries in place:

  1. Saying no. We don’t need to justify the why – explanations are not always needed.
  2. Saying yes – when someone offers to help. It is not a sign of weakness or vulnerability.
  3. Showing gratitude when someone helps, which deepens our relationships in meaningful ways.
  4. Ask for help. Too many of us are afraid to speak up and ask for help when we need it.
  5. Be kind to ourselves and others; watch how this ripples out to create a rewarding work environment for all.

Cultivate an atmosphere of positivity, recognize others for their efforts, and encourage your team to do the same in their everyday activities. Dr. Cloud sums up the incredible power of encouragement:

“When you encourage someone, it literally changes their brain chemistry to be able to perform… sends fuel to the brain.”

By setting boundaries and keeping them, by practicing self-care and gratitude, and by encouraging our teams, we’re fostering a sense of positivity and respect.

And that’s a win-win atmosphere for everyone.

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Servant Leadership: Servant First, Leader Second

It was with great joy that I recently learned that my client, the UN World Food Program (WFP), just won the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. I have had the honor of being the Executive Coach to more than a dozen of the leaders in this organization for several years now.

The largest humanitarian organization in the world, the WFP was honored for their efforts in fighting hunger, promoting peace in areas affected by continuing conflicts, and averting insidious efforts at using hunger as a weapon of war.

It is no small task.

In working with clients from the UN WFP, a distinguishing characteristic is evident: each has a sincere, committed desire to be of service to the world. Many are the very definition of servant leaders.

What is a Servant Leader?

The term servant leader was conceived by Robert Greenleaf in “The Servant as Leader,” first published in 1970.

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types…”

Working with the WFP, especially during these unsettled times, makes me so proud.

World Disruption Highlights the Value of Servant Leadership

The ongoing world crisis has given a new recognition to servant leadership.

Benjamin Laker writing in Forbes noted how ongoing economic instability has shifted the dynamics of doing business: many organizations must be more flexibly structured to remain in business.

“When small teams within an organization are self-organizing and driving innovation and improvement through customer interactions, leadership can focus on providing clear strategic intent and direction, providing a guiding light for its agile teams to follow.”

This collaborative structure, noted David Cobb, lecturer in talent management, innovation and leadership, allows for more interaction not only with – but between teams, a structure he’s called the “Broken Triangle.”

The Broken Triangle illustrates:

  • Rather than individual efforts, cooperative work is recognized.
  • Group efforts determine rewards – not individual effort.
  • Individual rewards are recognized by the contributions to the group.

And while the structure of an organization may change, it still needs a committed leader. Instead of the traditional role as an enforcer of rules, a leader becomes an enabler. Listening to the feedback of groups, a leader enables, by providing a guiding light for their teams to follow.

Cobb stresses the new structure is not idealistic, but instead inverts the pyramid of importance, focusing on assisting customer-facing teams. And in today’s unsettled business climate, such a strategy allows organizations to maintain a competitive edge while fostering growth and innovation.

Maintaining Peace During the Pandemic

The pandemic has affected everyone worldwide.

For leaders, however, chaos doesn’t happen sporadically. Disruptions are often a part of their daily role, attempting to navigate smoothly amidst a myriad of human actions that oftentimes erupt into heated workplace tensions.

Vivian Giang, writing in Fast Company, has some suggestions to follow when smooth sailing suddenly turns into collaborative chaos:

  1. Transform foes into allies. When those around us begin to trust us more, they won’t feel as threatened. Transforming our mindset about “foes” can also be empowering – for all involved.
  2. Amp up those communication abilities. Misunderstandings and tensions often arise over miscommunication. Leaders must make sure to understand the range of communication styles in those they work with.
  3. Learn to listen impartially. Don’t stop someone from communicating, because it fosters a feeling of “you’re not listening to me.”
  4. Be aware of hidden motives. Because of the tumultuous times, extraneous issues may be brought up. Learn to zoom in on what is relevant – and never waiver from cultivating peace when faced with any conflict.

Inspiration or Motivation: Which Is It?

International author and speaker on management and leadership Kevin L. McCrudden cites that research over many years has shown money has rarely been the highest form of motivation.

Using the United Nations as an example, he notes that when hired, people are energized and inspired, often filled with enthusiasm.

Then, something happens. That once-inspired employee becomes frustrated.

“Ultimately, people come to work for their direct manager; or, conversely, they leave because of their direct manager. He or she either “inspires” or “motivates” staff, or is uninspiring or demotivating.”

He cites Peter Drucker, American management icon, who said:

“Leadership is doing the right things; management is doing things right.”

Leaders must continually inspire and motivate, a challenging responsibility during these chaotic times. Yet, we know that impactful leaders can foster energized and enthusiastic organizations. As McCrudden noted:  “The culture of rewarding positive performance enables people to feel good about working hard and doing their job well.”

Today, more than ever before, leaders need to develop their own inner peace, draw on it, and cultivate that peace in those they lead. Leaders must listen loudly, foster respect, recognize efforts, and be a lighthouse of strength that is boldly visible to their team.

In the words of Simon Sinek,

“A boss has the title, a leader has the people.”

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