Why we need ruthless compassion

Written by Nigel Girling, CMgr FCMI Tuesday 13 October 2020
Now more than ever, looking after our team means going above and beyond. We need to be compassionate and check in with them professionally and personally
Hands passing paper heart

In the volatile and challenging times we face towards the latter end  (we hope) of a global crisis, it might seem easier simply to withdraw and batten down the hatches, to wait for sunnier skies and just keep things ticking over.

Many organisations and leaders are doing exactly that. Many have actually let things slide - perhaps through a mixture of sympathy, anxiety, disengagement and dwindling hope – while others have rushed to the ‘other end’ with autocratic demands, tough targets and directive management styles. In such times, these extremes are probably not the answer.

In these times, we need balance and leadership skill. Enter ‘Ruthless Compassion’.

When the term first came to prominence, in the ideas of Canadian Psychiatrist Dr Marcia Sirota, it was primarily through her work treating addiction and trauma. In recent years however, the ideas embodied in Ruthless Compassion have been more widely seen as having relevance to leadership, to self-development and to sustaining high-performance.

The term may at first feel like an oxymoron – combining two opposing meanings that seem to have no place in the same phrase – but then, perhaps navigating that continuum and balancing that paradox is exactly the crux of our current – and future - challenge.

Ruthless compassion can be used to describe the combined ideas of absolute clarity, fearless high expectation, a refusal to collude in under-performance – yet all viewed through a lens of kindness and support to enable those expectations to be met. Ruthless compassion requires us to balance the needs of the individual, the team, the organisation and the stakeholders. As John Adair showed almost 50 years ago in his principles of ‘Action-Centred Leadership’, if we skew the balance of those factors inappropriately to favour one or two over the others, we generally risk failure and disengagement. So why is ruthless compassion a better answer?

Several reasons:

  • It asks us to focus on what is right, what is necessary and what is for the greater good
  • It requires us to think deeply about the right thing to do, rather than being misled by too much concern simply about what others might think of our actions
    It requires us to identify and remove ‘self-destructive patterns’ in ourselves and others
  • It asks us to stand up rather than just being a ‘people-pleaser’ – to use our strength to help to deliver great outcomes
  • It requires us to be kind and compassionate, but to maintain our expectations and find ways to help and support others to meet them
  • It asks us to be clear about what is true and what is necessary, not just what is easy

Make no mistake, it isn’t an easy balance to master. It isn’t a justification for simply ignoring people’s fears and anxieties or pretending they don’t matter. It isn’t about being nasty or brutal or uncaring. Quite the reverse in fact: we need to be compassionate and to have empathy – otherwise we’re just being ruthless and risk losing our best people, demoralising and disengaging everyone and sabotaging future performance. What we want is to recognise all those challenges, to care about – and care for – our people and yet still help, encourage and support them to perform at their absolute peak.

Times of crisis require leaders to really be leaders and to really lead. It isn’t enough to be a manager; coordinating work, monitoring performance, carrying on as if this is ‘business as usual’…. It simply isn’t and it won’t be for years to come – perhaps for ever.

This isn’t a ‘blip’, it’s a different world.

The things we would normally do, the leadership styles we’ve learned to adopt as our ‘default’, the habits we’ve formed, the communication methods we’ve come to use, the norms we’ve established about what ‘good’ or ‘right’ look like – all have to be re-examined, adapted or rejuvenated in the light of this landscape transformed.

As the great thinker Peter Drucker once said: "The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence, it is to act with yesterday's logic."

Ruthless compassion may be one way in which we can re-examine our attitudes, approaches, defaults and norms. It can be a ‘starter for ten’ in an ongoing evaluation of what our ‘new’ leadership might need to look like.

What do you think?


Nigel also wrote an article on How not to be an old-school leader.

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