It was as close as you can get to a perfect evening. My husband and I had gone to the marina in Belmar, NJ, our neighboring town, to see his coworker’s new boat. Admittedly, I don’t know that much about boats — I once referred to docking as ‘parking’ (cue the cringe from my dad, a former ship’s captain) — but even I could appreciate its beauty.
And so I approached our host, Sarah, to thank her. But before I could, she said something I won’t soon forget.
“Your husband is such a good person. I was just telling my friend what he did for me.”
She went on to explain how when her mother was placed in hospice care, Dan pulled some strings to enable her to work out of the Atlanta office (she was living in New Jersey) so she could spend more time with her mom. It was clear that Dan’s act of kindness meant the world to her; it left a mark that will stay with her forever.
On the flip side, people also remember the times when a leader fails to show compassion. I had one of those leaders, and I can vividly recall a conversation that happened 10 years ago this month when I asked for flexibility in my schedule so that I could be with Dan, who had just lost his mother.
My boss’ words couldn’t have been more insensitive. “This week is tough. We need bodies in the office.”
I was stunned. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in a position to quit on the spot, which is what I wanted to do. Instead, I took two days off — which was all I could get — and made arrangements to commute from NYC to the Jersey Shore (about a 2.5-hour haul during rush hour) for the remaining part of the week.
My future mother-in-law had passed away, and I had to negotiate time.
Not surprisingly, it was around that time that I started to mentally check out, knowing that I didn’t want a future with a company that would respond in such a callous way to a death in the family. It was later explained to me that because Dan and I weren’t married at the time, I wasn’t eligible for bereavement leave.
“I’m sorry, that’s the policy,” my boss said. He offered sympathy, but didn’t give me what I needed the most: empathy.
Clearly, I’m still affected by what he said, even after all this time. But I no longer blame him. He was one of those people who treated everything he learned at business school as gospel and, unfortunately, “soft skills” like compassion are often left out of the curriculum.
It’s a trend that needs to change, according to executive coach Ray Williams, who discussed the topic of compassionate leadership in a recent Psychology Today article. Williams believes that although leaders have traditionally been taught to be “strategic, rational, tough, bottom-line business people who focus on results,” perhaps it’s time they’re taught to lead with their hearts as well as their heads. These turbulent times call for “a different style of leader — one that exhibits kindness, compassion and empathy,” he says.
Williams isn’t alone in this thinking.
When speaking at Healthcare Financial Management Association conference, Captain Chesley Sullenberger — the pilot who successfully landed a plane on the Hudson River in 2009 — lauded the value of integrity, compassion, and perseverance in leaders. “Some would deride those by calling them soft skills as opposed to hard skills,” he said. “They are wrong. Those aren’t soft skills; they are human skills.”
David Miller — a former healthcare CIO — went a little deeper, stating that leaders must be willing and able to demonstrate trust and show vulnerability with their team. “You have to be honest about your strengths and weaknesses, the mistakes that you make, and the reasons why you think the way you do,” he wrote, which means opening up in ways that were thought to be taboo in the past.
“I am talking about a deeper level of interaction, beyond just the Myers-Briggs approach. For example, I find it helpful in understanding another individual if I have some idea of their background and upbringing. Knowing that Jim grew up poor or that Sue’s father was an alcoholic or that Kerry was adopted often gives me some insight and compassion for others that would not exist if I did not know that about them.”
By getting everyone on the team to reveal their positive and negative tendencies to one another, it helps to build trust, says Miller. And once you build trust, “you gain insight, empathy, and a greater understanding.”
To me, that’s what leadership is all about.