Self-Compassion Makes You a Better Leader
For most leaders pushing yourself, being competitive, and having the ambition to keep going when things seem impossible have been keys to your success.
But here’s the thing I’ve been learning about and exploring the last few years: what happens when what seemed to work so well at one stage in your career journey seems to be the very thing that gets in your way as you continue to rise?
That drive, that competitive nature, that pressure we put on ourselves — it often comes from this voice inside that is pretty harsh. We think it’s how we need to talk to ourselves to achieve our goals, to hold ourselves accountable, to make us be disciplined and focused.
Turns out, it’s not.
A wealth of research shows that self-criticism often backfires – big time. Self-criticism increases our unhappiness, our stress levels, our struggles with procrastination, and gets in our way of achieving our goals.
For most of us, the idea that self-compassion can make us more competitive is counterintuitive. Most of us have internalized the idea that excellence is a result of not just discipline, but of being hard on ourselves. But studies show that self-compassion actually enhances willpower and our ability to stick with our goals.
Many leaders avoid self-compassion, thinking it means being easy on yourself and will lead to being lazy and satisfied with mediocrity. But self-compassion is actually the foundation for resilience and helps you develop the courage to be more self aware.
By taking a growth-focused attitude — rather than a harsh attitude — toward your efforts as a leader, you build your capacity to navigate challenges and unpredictability and you’re able to extend this same compassionate attitude to those who work with you which in turn allows you to build trust and influence.
What is Self Compassion
At the most basic level, self-compassion is defined by researcher Dr. Kristin Neff as treating yourself the way you would treat a good friend.
Practicing self-compassion is a combination of mindful awareness, self-kindness, and a recognition of our common humanity.
Dr. Neff has spent over a decade studying self-compassion. Her evidence-based framework for self-compassion consists of three core components.
Treating yourself with the patience, empathy, warmth, and understanding you’d extend to a friend rather than sitting in harsh, ‘you idiot’ self-judgment.
Viewing your imperfections as part of the larger human condition. This requires us to recognize our connection to others and embrace our fallibility and struggles as an intrinsic part of simply being human rather than as proof of our incompetence, which just leaves us feeling isolated and disconnected.
Observing what you are thinking and feeling with a warm heart, rather than trying to avoid difficult feelings or making things bigger and more dramatic than they actually are.
Self-compassion requires its own kind of discipline, a commitment to self-awareness, vulnerability and a willingness to give yourself a chance to learn and grow.
You’ll Be a Better Leader
The payoffs to yourself and those you lead are pretty remarkable.
In Rich Fernandez and Steph Stern’s Harvard Business Review article on the topic they identify these five ways being more self-compassionate enhances you as a leader.
Studies indicate that people who exercise self-compassion have higher levels of emotional intelligence, are better able to maintain calm when flustered, and tend to experience more happiness and optimism.
Kristin Neff’s research and that of others shows that self-compassionate people have standards as high as people who lack self-compassion, but that those with high self-compassion are less likely to be unduly and unproductively hard on themselves if they didn’t meet their own standards. Self-compassion supports you as you navigate setbacks, regain clarity, and move forward productively.
Studies from Neff and colleagues indicate that highly self-compassionate people are more oriented toward personal growth. Rather than avoid challenges, they are more likely to formulate specific plans to reach their goals.
Research shows a strong link between self-compassion and conscientiousness and accountability, suggesting that self-compassion enables leaders to act responsibly and morally, even when undertaking difficult decisions.
Compassion Toward Others
As the UC-Berkeley professor of psychology Serena Chen writes, ‘Self-compassion and compassion for others are linked… Being kind and nonjudgmental toward the self is good practice for treating others compassionately.’ Leaders who are able to model compassion for themselves and others build trust and psychological safety that leads to higher engagement and sustainable high performance in teams and organizations.”
Learn to be More Self-Compassionate
Embracing the benefits of self-compassion is the first step. Then the question is how to cultivate more of it in yourself. The good news is that like any other skill, self-compassion can be learned and improved over time.
A simple way to start is when you’re facing a challenge, take a deep breath and try these three steps.
Step 1: Mindfulness
Just acknowledge whatever is going on. Allow yourself to feel that it’s hard or you’re stressed or overwhelmed. Don’t do anything about it, just notice.
Step 2: Common Humanity
Remind yourself that “I’m not alone; other leaders are facing similar challenges.” Reminding yourself that you’re not alone, that others are experiencing similarly challenging circumstances enhances your well-being and your sense of connection with others.
Step 3: Self-Kindness
Ask yourself, “What would I say to a friend or colleague who was going through this?” or “What would being kind to myself right now look like as I face this?” Treating yourself with compassion will help you find the motivation to sort out the best path forward.
For even more exercises that have proven to lead to improved self-compassion, take a look at these options to experiment with as you start your journey.
Ready to Begin
If you’ve gotten to the end of this and you’re now beating yourself up for not being more self-compassionate, well, there it is — a perfect place to start practicing.
You’re not alone with this being a struggle, you can be patient and kind to yourself and you forge a new path for how to talk to yourself as a leader.
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Since 2013, Amy Varga and her team at The Varga Group have worked with over 60 higher education institutions, independent schools and nonprofits to grow their fundraising, train their board, coach their leaders and successfully navigate their capital and comprehensive campaigns. They have helped their clients raise more than $90M. The Varga Group team is based in Portland, Oregon and works with clients nationwide.
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