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  • Writer's pictureRobert Christopher

Compassion Trumps Passion

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

Compassion Trumps Passion: Cultivating Leadership forward for the Greater Good

American culture has long glorified passion. Children, students, and young adults across the country are taught and told to find their passion, to figure out what motivates them, and do that for the rest of their lives. Their lives will be well-lived, surely, if they find their passions.

I’m not so sure I want to own that ideology for myself or my family. What today’s leaders and educators should be teaching our young people and new leaders is how to find their compassion.

Why do you ask?

As a business executive, leader, and a proud member of the American workforce, I have witnessed and seen the cracks in leadership widening. For the last 20 years, I have been asking myself and my staff the same questions:

How can we cultivate and lead with compassion?

How does compassion change the culture of work?

These questions have never felt more pressing than they do today.

This divide in leadership styles has expanded and affected all kinds of industries, from politics to technology to education. The question of compassion versus passion is about human interest versus self-interest. At its core, it’s about discovering why people are motivated to achieve.

Managing and leading people is a complicated terrain to navigate. There are plenty of ways to manage people, and many of those methods will deliver tangible results in the workplace. Every week, new books arrive in the market, covering topics about leading and managing people. Still, few will prioritize the current and future success of each individual ahead of the company goals.

Throughout my time as a college administrator, business owner, and leader in the construction industry, I have observed and developed an understanding of the framework around effective and selfish leadership styles in both professional and casual environments. In my experience, there are passionate leaders and compassionate leaders; both types exist in today’s workforce. These leaders often sound the same, look the same, and get the same immediate results, but their priorities and motivations do not originate from the same place.

Compassionate Versus Passionate Leadership: How to Tell the Difference and Why It Matters

Passionate leaders make choices that are rooted in self-interest and insecurity. They point fingers, find blame in others, and work to advance themselves first. While they can fight and defend just as tirelessly as compassionate leaders, they do so as a defense mechanism. Their effort is grounded in fear if they cannot achieve the personal goals they have set for themselves.

Passionate leaders often micromanage unnecessary details because their anxiety and fear of personal loss urge them to do so. They are seen as inflexible and focused on inconsequential rules and details. For them, leadership is a chance to capitalize on prosperity and individual success, and it is hard to find fault with the preprogrammed American dream. Passion, however, can create a very harsh, insular mentality in a setting that demands human connection and care.

Unfortunately, we can all think of examples that fit the profile of a passionate leader. Just turn on the news, observe a leader in your organization, listen for words like “my” and “I.” Ask yourself, why is this person acting that way, and what is important to them? Recall sports stories about a coach that throws chairs and chokes players on the court, was that a compassionate approach?

Compassionate leaders, in contrast, lead with their hearts and conscience. They fight just as hard as passionate people, but they fight for those around them. When they win, everyone working with them wins. They concern themselves with spreading wealth and financial security to their staff, coworkers, and the next generation. This was commonplace at The Home Depot in the 1990s, where I first witnessed compassionate leadership in effect. The founders, Bernie Marcus and Arther Blank, helped many people within the company and community prosper through their generosity and philanthropy.

Compassionate leaders approach management as an opportunity to contribute to the greater good and create positive effects that will ripple endlessly outwards. These leaders allow their humanity to play a role in how they operate day-to-day. Compassionate leaders are visionaries who see each small-scale decision in the context of a much bigger picture.

Compassionate leaders understand that long-term success only comes through cooperation, collaboration, and genuine investment in each other’s personhood. These leaders will turn away from a micro-manager, as they see those leaders as insecure and a poor culture fit for the company.

None of this is to say that passion does not hold a valuable place in the workforce. On the contrary, all of us have moments of passion, regardless of position or motivation. Sometimes sheer effort and determination are needed to deal with personal and professional challenges. Caring about results and pushing yourself to get them is not a bad thing, as long as those moments of passion allow you to grow in your compassion and leadership abilities.

For example, I am an avid trail runner. Collectively, most runners watch out for one another and leave the space better than they found it. During a competitive race, my passion prevails near the last mile mark, and I pursue those ahead of me with a selfish goal of passing them before the finish line. My insecurity of aging, being heavier and slowing down cause me to want to achieve ahead of others. In there, though, that personal satisfaction, whether I caught up or not, allows me to stay focused on other’s needs ahead of my own after that moment passes. I may be competitive but also celebrate when others achieve. Being passionate about things that raise you up is normal and acceptable, so long as someone else does not suffer because of what you gained. Recognize those moments in yourself; you know when you are about to lose your shit. That is likely an insecurity manifesting into a passionate reaction.

Passionate and compassionate leaders can appear the same at first glance — both can be enthusiastic, invested in the work, and concerned with success — and sometimes we can’t tell one from the other until confronted with obstacles. We can become better at differentiating between the two in the hiring process to help determine which leadership style they default too.

- Please connect with me if you would like to hear more about how.

How Compassionate Leadership Will Shape the Future

America’s rugged individualism, love of independence, and an insatiable hunger for success have generated unparalleled innovation and wealth. We are unique in our drive and work ethic, and I am proud to be a part of that distinctly American culture.

It is time, however, for there to be a collective “we” added to the American equation. As leaders, we have to make room for the greater good in our decision-making process. That’s where compassionate leadership comes in. By doing the right thing now, by making choices that are sometimes difficult or unpleasant, we will ensure continued industry growth for the generations that come after us.

Compassionate leaders will leave this earth, culture, and community better than they found it. Just as Reza Mirza, CEO of Icelandic Glacial, and his team accomplished by becoming a “Carbon Neutral” company in their production and operation divisions. Those types of compassionate decisions instigate long-term positive ramifications to be enjoyed and expanded upon by future generations.

Humanity and kindness can exist in our work and the economy. Financial success comes when leaders step outside of themselves and prioritize the wellbeing of the people making the cogs of the machine turn. Sometimes being compassionate means taking a financial hit now, knowing that it will serve your community and company better down the road. It is not easy, and it may not make you very popular all of the time, but it will pay off in the long run.

If you recognize that you are more passionate than compassionate and you desire to create a positive legacy, try these things. Care deeply about your people before your business. Come into the office every day and strive to be a compassionate leader. Get personal with them and learn about their dreams and the ideal life and job they see themselves performing. Become equally invested in their success, happiness, and safety. If you have passionate leaders working for you, talk to them, ask them to lead differently. If they cannot change or are unwilling to try, move them into a role where they can win as an individual contributor instead of managing people. When you do this consistently, your company’s financial success will have a better chance of progressing in the right direction.

It is up to the leaders of today to help decide and shape the compassionate leaders of tomorrow, and it is your responsibility as a leader to take that seriously. Do your part to create a brighter future.

Passionate leaders do things right, but compassionate leaders do the right thing. And, trust me, it makes a world of difference.

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