Is compassion a weakness?

"There is still a culture of blokey-ness in leadership. You’ve got to be tough. You’re seen as successful if you’re too busy to listen. When we had a re-structure and had to let some people go, we were told to just soldier on – it’s just part of business.  You’re seen as effeminate if you show you care.”

I met with a reader last week to talk about his observations of men and leadership. He works with great female leaders in an organisation with men filling most of the top senior positions. “The culture IS changing, the conversation is more overt about gender stuff and doing the right thing, but there are some serious sticking points in the unofficial culture. You’ve got to develop sharp elbows if you want get and keep a seat at the table.”

This kind of ‘survival of the toughest’ culture is blind to the precipice before it. Leadership based on strength – physical posturing and squashed emotions – has a limited function. It chokes any opportunity for collaboration (why would I share my ideas if they are going to be stolen by a colleague) and runs the energy of fear (I can’t speak up or share what I really feel because I will be judged as weak and dismissed).

Organisations that allow the old model of Physicality and Authority to dominate the leadership style will find themselves staring at the chasm of irrelevance. There will be a gaggle of chest thumpers (men and women) sitting around the table wondering where all the people went and what happened to the business. This kind of self-focused competitiveness kills collaboration and innovation.

Power Over others through physical strength and authority was fine for the middle ages when rival tribes threatened to invade the village and savage the peace. We needed strength and command to keep us safe.

We’ve moved past that in the last thirty years to Power Through others. We developed persuasion and the focus on ideas for influence. We started to develop relationships and connection. We invited people to join us on a quest. We learned to lead with respect and consideration rather than brute strength.

The most evolved leaders move beyond this again to focus on Power For.  This is leadership that inspires. It is based on a purpose that is focused on others, for the betterment of the greater good. It is leadership that searches for a greater perspective. These types of leaders would never turn away someone at their door because they were too busy; they see moments like these as moments that matter – moments that can expand perspective and offer greater insight. Listening to others opens the door to new ideas and solutions.

These leaders have great presence: they are anchored in the moment, deeply aware of who they are, and guided by their values.

Smart people know this. Why do we still have cultures that default to blokey-ness?

Businesses that feel under threat will activate the survival instinct, and the leadership norm devolves. It takes great courage and resilience to elevate the mode of dog-eat-dog to constructive competition and collaboration. It’s the ethos of “Let’s get through this together” as opposed to, “I’m on my own, I need to fight through this.”

We need to elevate a more evolved version of leadership. It looks like this:

An evolved leader is compassionate AND strong enough to hold others to account. They put themselves first so there is more of them to give (as opposed to putting themselves first to take more for themselves). They are decisive and focused AND collaborative and open. They can be fierce in negotiation, firm on issues, compassionate with people, and sensible in decision-making. There is nothing weak about this kind of leader. And we need more of them.

How do you handle blokey-ness at work? Does it have a place? What is your version of the strong leader?