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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