The Leadership Relationship: are you a Compassionate Leader?

As a green, but very grown-up (or so I thought!) 23-year old, I was launched into my management career, with responsibility for recruiting, training and leading a team of 18 staff across 3 shifts – how hard can it be?

VERY – and I learned it the hard way! 

However, I can’t have done too bad a job, as I recently attended the funeral of my very first employee and, 30+ years on, was still welcomed warmly by my old team.

So, what was my secret to success?  Well, at the time, I didn’t know my own secret!  In fact, I didn’t even know I had a secret!!  I started work at 14 and had already had a succession of leaders who left me feeling undervalued and fearful for my own job.  The one thing I knew, was that I didn’t want my team to feel like that.  I also adopted 2 principles:

  1. Never ask my team to do something I wasn’t prepared to at least have a go at myself
  2. Listen to and learn from my team – they were all older and more experienced than me

On the second point, I certainly got led on a merry dance, on more than one occasion, but I think I generally won the team over on the first point.

Over the subsequent 30+ years, my style has undoubtedly changed and developed, but I like to believe that it has always been underpinned by a fundamental belief that leadership is about relationships; relationships with real people who have lives beyond the 8 hours/day spent at work.

Compassionate Leadership

When I started out in my leadership career, the expectation was that home life was left at the factory door, to be picked up again when we clocked off for the day.  Thankfully, today there is much more of a shift towards bringing compassion and heart into leadership.

When we start to consider the people in our teams as whole beings, with interests, skills, qualities and attributes that go beyond the function they perform in their role, we then start to develop a greater understanding of how they contribute to the team and of the synergies that can develop when we value the whole person. I love the definition of Compassionate Leadership used by the Kings Fund:

Compassionate Leadership involves a focus on relationships through careful listening to, understanding, empathising with and supporting other people, enabling those we lead to feel valued, respected and cared for, so they can reach their potential and do their best work.

The Leadership Relationship

In more recent years, since introducing horses into my work, I’ve been fortunate to be able to look at leadership from yet another angle, relating teams and leadership to herd dynamics.

Nancy Lowery, The Natural Leader, says “the beauty of bringing horses into a discussion about leadership is the premis that leadership is a relationship.  Horses are a herd species and therefore naturally seek a confident leader.  It is this innate desire to be with others that makes the horse a wonderful learning partner.  As leadership is a developed skill, there is much we can learn about the importance of awareness in our leadership presence and capacity from a horse.  Learning how to be a leader in a herd of two is a powerful and emotional experience.

I love watching clients as they interact with my herd; noticing them play with their energy to influence and connect with the horses is a great privilege, as the horses make it transparently clear to the participants what it is that they are doing well…. And what they need to work on.

But, even more special to me is my own private time with my herd; either sitting alongside them as a peaceful observer, or moving amongst them as part of the herd.  The fluidity of their relationships is fascinating and their self-beliefs very apparent.

Although Billy would fiercely defend his right to be leader, he does this on the basis of seniority alone.  He places food above safety in his priorities, making him a less then sensible choice as leader.  Most days, that would be fine, but if there was ever a crisis in the vicinity of the team, Zahra would be the one to step up to the plate, ensuring everyone was moved to a safe space.

Since losing Zahra last month, the dynamics and leadership within the herd have begun to change and evolve.  Yes, Billy still rules the food supply with an iron fist, but Cloud and Gertie are now testing each other out in the role of safety advocate.  My money is on Cloud, as he’s quite a hypervigilant boy, where Gertie is a bit full of bluff and bluster.  Time will tell!

One thing I do know is that Billy is very much an old-school leader and, as such, his time at the helm is surely coming to its conclusion.  As Nancy Lowry says, “leadership is a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow, and any discussion of leadership must attend to the dynamics of this relationship.”

This doesn’t appear to be a lesson Billy is open to learning at this stage in his leadership career!

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