Why is love an inclusive leadership skill?

“Life is hard” includes everyone

I received a message today from a friend:

Thomas and Shalina’s daughter was born on Sunday. The baby girl is thriving but not Shalina. She has complications –severe haemorrhage amongst others – and is still in hospital critically ill.

It reminds us that no-one lives a chocolate box life. Our journey is hard. It hurts. It involves loss, illness, failure, setbacks, pain, families, jobs, dreams, health, money, homes, careers. We all repeatedly experience disappointment, frustration, failure, rejection, illness, injury, conflict, hostility, grief, fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, guilt, loss and loneliness.

No-one is excluded.

Why we not taught the leadership skills to lead through these setbacks?

So if everyone experiences the setbacks and challenges in life, why are leaders not taught the skills to lead their employees through this? Why are conversations at work so silent when personal financial challenges loom? Why do conversations happen behind closed doors when parents have a stillborn baby? Why do redundancies happen in secret and colleagues find out through the workings of the office grapevine? Why are hushed tones used when someone gets passed over for a role?

Part of the reason is we naturally want to avoid pain. When these things happen in our organisations, we’d do anything to get away from them, to step away from the precipice as quickly as possible. We fear that leaning into someone else’s hurt might bring us face to face with our own fears and pain. It means that when team members dare to surface their pain and hardship and failure, we take them as problems to be solved not landscapes to be embraced.

There is a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen, Anthem

But the other part of the reason is we don’t have the skills to deal with this. Leadership development programmes have not taught us the skill of love at work. Yet psychologists know that instead of ignoring pain, developing the skill of acknowledging suffering and responding to your team (and yourself) with compassion and kindness has a significant impact on performance at work. Our everyday word for this skill is love.

Love is an inclusive leadership skill

Given that no single person at work is excluded from setbacks, pain, failure and hurt, learning the skill of compassion, or love, is one of the most inclusive skills we can learn. It builds connection, helps people feel valued, enables them to thrive and helps them to perform.

Like any inclusive leadership skill, compassion starts with applying the skill to ourselves. Self-compassion is acknowledging our own suffering and responding kindly. We too carry pain and hurt and failure, at work and elsewhere in our lives.

Build the inclusive leadership skill – compassion

Because we have no language of love, or self-compassion at work, we need to take baby steps.

Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future

Nelson Mandela

A simple baby step to build this inclusive leadership skill is to connect to others at work. That’s not suggesting we all go around wallowing in self-pity and not doing any work, but it starts with:

  • Remind ourselves (and others) that we are not the only ones going through this challenge. Every-one else is not happy. Other people do know what this is like.
  • Reach out to others to help you to unhook from your difficult thoughts and feelings, instead of being caught up in your head.
  • Spend time with people who care about you and treat you kindly. Engage with them and be fully present. Let them know you are in pain and accept their kindness.
  • Remind yourself that the pain is something you have in common with all of humanity. It is not a defect. It tells you that you care, that some things matter to you.

The good news is, when you can apply the leadership skill of love and compassion to yourself, you can then use it with other people.

And because no-one is excluded from the difficulties of life, it is one of the most inclusive leadership skills you can learn.

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