A leader takes on the responsibility of looking after the success and well-being not only of an organization, but also of its people. The pandemic has heightened our awareness that the well-being of our team needs to be included in our measures of success, as it has exacerbated a mental health and burnout crisis. At the same time, the needs of others can quickly make it so that a leader’s self-care takes a backseat. Human nature is to work for change from the outside—to focus attention on shifting external factors rather than looking inward first. Yet, change is only possible and sustainable from the inside out. As leaders we have an opportunity to reconnect with our own humanity through a lens of compassion.
After nearly two decades of helping leaders around the world develop into conscious leaders, often while they guide their organizations through considerable change and transformation, I’ve seen that a critical characteristic of the most remarkable leaders is compassion, not only for others, but for themselves. Compassion can be a guiding force and light to get through the most challenging times. It can also create a powerful shift in organizational culture. As I share with my clients regularly, an organization’s greatest asset is its people. They are at the heart and core of any business or its ability to succeed. And, if we want to safeguard the mental health and the morale of each member of our teams, we also need to make it a habit to act with compassion for ourselves.
From Empathy to Compassion
When we practice empathy, we exercise our capacity to understand the feelings and emotions of others. When we practice compassion, we have a desire to help improve the situation beyond simply having awareness of it or an understanding of it. You might think of this as a gradual journey from sympathy, to empathy, to ultimately being able to bestow compassion. I often hear leaders say, “I feel you.” I challenge them to adjust and instead ask, “I feel you AND what support do you need?” We cannot pretend to know what will make a situation better for someone. It is always important to ask.
This also goes for our personal practice of self-compassion as leaders. When the world feels heavy and overwhelming, we can take a pause and ask ourselves: What would actually be helpful in this moment?
Although self-compassion may feel unnatural or selfish at first, there are small ways you can practice on a daily basis. Over time you’ll find that compassion will become embedded both in the ways you lead, and in how you care for yourself and others, honoring your own boundaries. Here are seven ways you can build the habits of self-compassion:
7 Self-Compassion Habits for Leaders
1. Cultivate Daily Awareness
Awareness drives change and also helps us focus on what is. We can miss many beautiful moments in our life simply by not savoring the present moment. Likewise, we cannot shift away from something we are not willing to see or face. Self-awareness is a critical component of being able to practice self-compassion. Cultivating awareness is a daily practice of coming back to the here-and-now and being able to observe fully. It’s an opportunity to develop a mindfulness or meditation practice—take a pause in order to respond versus react.
Imagine an email thread that is progressively getting more heated due to the nature of reactive replies. What if you took a step away, and reread the messages an hour later? Could you objectively decide if a response was needed? Maybe the best course of action would be to organize a call to get clarity and address any misunderstandings. There is always an opportunity to see situations with new eyes, if we can choose responsive versus reactive behaviors. We need to give ourselves time and space to observe and see things for what they are.
2. Feel Your Feelings
Leaders often feel that there is no space to be vulnerable. If we mask our feelings and emotions, they can erupt when triggered unexpectedly—and we close off the ability to show ourselves compassion for our current state of being. In many cases, we also close off the ability for those on our teams to express their feelings and emotions when we lack the capacity to do so ourselves.
Cultivating the ability to truly feel what is arising within us allows us to then take meaningful action. There is beauty to the human condition. We aren’t robots waking up each day to perform—we are here to experience life to its fullest, and that includes giving ourselves permission to feel all the pleasant and unpleasant emotions that may arise.
3. Create Space for Dialogue and Connection
Replacing the tendency to ruminate with a healthy self-dialogue is also a practice of compassion, and it requires tuning in and connecting with ourselves. For repeating thoughts that are not supportive of your well-being, find a way to reframe them to develop a new mindset and more compassionate inner dialogue. For example, if your repeating thought is, “Nothing I do is good enough,” you can shift that to, “Today I did the best I could; I know I did the best I could.”
Try making a list of every negative thought that needs to be reframed. You can create a sheet with two columns—one for the old thoughts or self-talk and one with space to create new thoughts or affirmations. Our words matter and have power, especially the ones we say to ourselves. When rumination creeps in, take advantage of the opportunity and create space for positive shifts to become available to you from the inside out.
4. Create Opportunity for Subtle Shifts and Action
As you grow in your self-awareness, you will continue to discover the subtle shifts in your life required to drive long-lasting change and ongoing compassion. Leaders already carry a large burden in their daily roles—so focusing on micro-shifts, along with making daily adjustments to your practice and your way of being, helps lessen the stress of change and creates space for a gentler approach. Start with one step each day to give yourself a dose of compassion.
For example, many times I have found myself having to deliver hard news as a leader, whether in a meeting, in an annual review, or during an entire organizational restructuring event. I often left those conversations feeling guilt, shame, sadness, or remorse—even knowing I had done the right thing on behalf of myself or my clients. Sitting with my feelings and journaling after such events allowed me to process and release heavy feelings, giving space to extend compassion to myself. It also created the opportunity to prepare for such instances with the intention of a compassionate approach—keeping the best interest of all those involved in mind.
5. Celebrate the Little Victories
Sometimes, it can feel like all we’re doing is pushing the boulder uphill without a break. On a regular basis, take a moment to reflect on how you were able to overcome new challenges, speak more kindly to yourself, attempt new endeavors, or shift feelings within yourself as a result of your efforts. Maybe you were able to give that presentation with less fear and anxiety, or have that difficult conversation you have been avoiding, or you finally made time to prioritize moving your body versus saying “There’s not enough time in the day.” Celebrate the little wins, your personal victories and summits, as you navigate the peaks and valleys life presents.
6. Release Perfectionism and Ask for Support
A big part of practicing self-compassion is not trying to do it all. Give yourself permission to ask for help where you need it, and to invest in your own personal growth and development where you need additional support and guidance. Maybe your workload is not balanced and you need to ask for a higher headcount in order to deliver expected results, or maybe you need support in your personal development journey as a leader. There is no shame in hiring a therapist, coach, trainer, or taking a course or reading books to help you along your journey. If you know there are areas where additional guidance, knowledge, or support could help, seek out what you need. Practicing self-compassion ties back to practicing personal leadership and caring for your physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental well-being. Part of the beauty of this adventure called life is that personal growth is always possible.
7. Control What’s in Your Control
We can only truly control our internal state. Leaders can work to become more centered in order to ride the storms their teams and organizations may have to go through. By this, I mean that understanding and accepting what is actually within our control as leaders is a righteous act of self-compassion. It eliminates the tendency to blame and shame ourselves or others. If we know we are doing the best we can in any given situation, we must be able to show compassion for ourselves and any shortcomings that may result from the countless factors that are far beyond our control. This is not to say that we lower our standards of self-accountability, but that we acknowledge and address the physical, mental, or emotional pain we might be experiencing and that we have the ability to impact. If we cannot do this for ourselves, then we won’t have the emotional intelligence and capacity to do this for our people.
As we develop healthy habits of self-compassion, we are able to extend those to others as leaders. An organization that starts to practice and embody compassion allows for a culture of heightened emotional intelligence, trust, and care. Conscious leaders will help shift the global collective out of outdated systems, behaviors, and structures that are no longer relevant to our world and that do not have the best interests of their people rooted in their core. They will be able to do so with awareness and compassion, first within themselves, then within their places of work. With a conscious focus on compassion, leaders pave a new future in which organizations thrive not only in profitability, but with impact and total well-being.
Compassion is more empowering than empathy, according to research. Mindful leadership expert Rasmus Hougaard breaks down how excessive empathy can contribute to burnout, and explains five key ways to support your teams by leading with compassion.