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Self-compassion as a leader

Compassion is understood as a concern for the suffering of others, a warm hearted sensitivity to others misfortunes, a wish to improve that suffering, to alleviate the pain of the other.  As leaders we may be familiar with the imperative to show care and concern for those who work for us – tolerance and leniency where circumstances are challenging, kindness and humanity at times that those who work with us need particular warmth or understanding. Yet this desire to help others can sometimes fail when we turn that compassion to ourselves. Yet psychologists are finding that self-compassion is an important source of coping and resilience.

As leaders we cannot possibly meet everyone’s requirements and we cannot avoid being the object of blame and hostility when unwanted events occur. The relationship between a leader and follower is not just a cold transaction, it is often emotional rather than rational at heart, helping our team to develop their internal capability and resilience without drowning ourselves, without sacrificing our well-being in pursuit of theirs.        

As leaders we need to establish, and reinforce, the neural pathways of self-compassion. The concept of ‘good enough’ that was brought to us by the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott is useful here.  Winnicott encouraged parents to veer away from aspirations of being ‘perfect’ parents and instead allow themselves to settle with the notion of good enough.   This is an idea that is very helpful to apply to leadership.  There is no one perfect leader and we can only strive to do our best, to be good enough.  

Your critical inner voice may say things like:

  • You are the leader, you are supposed to know
  • You are doing a terrible job
  • Someone else would be much more successful
  • I don’t think they should have hired me
  • I am letting my people down
  • I made a big mistake ……..
  • No-one respects me

In facing your inner critic you can acknowledge:

  • Yes I am the leader but I am learning
  • I am sure there are some things I am doing well
  • It is not helpful to compare myself to others
  • I must have faith that they hired me because I am capable
  • I care about my people, I am doing my best
  • I made a mistake but I have learnt from it
  • I must learn to respect myself, respect from others will follow

Turn up your self-compassion:

  • Speak to yourself as you would a valued friend
  • Imagine a team of supportive people around you, what would they say?
  • Allow yourself time to learn
  • Seek help where you can
  • Spend as much time thinking about things you have done well as things you feel you messed up
  • Note your successes however small
  • Strengthen your inner compassion by repeating these tasks daily.

For over 50 ways to build your resilience explore Bounce Back: how to fail fast and be resilient at work by Dr Susan Kahn.


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