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Leaders: Stop Beating Yourself Up

Why Compassionate Leadership Starts with Self Compassion

Among the myriad of buzz-worthy ideas out there these days, Compassionate Leadership is one that has risen to the surface this past year. For good reason no doubt. However, it’s not quite as simple as it sounds - because to be a truly compassionate leader you actually need to focus on yourself.

As someone who could easily have been the poster child of never being satisfied with “good enough,” I have often struggled with self compassion. When something didn’t go as planned I was too unforgiving of myself. My negative self talk included statements such as, “I should have known better,” followed by a lingering fear that I was simply not good enough.

Several career transitions and major life changes later, I came to the realization that my history of being hard on myself was creating a space where I lacked the ability to quickly recover from setbacks because I couldn’t forgive myself. This ultimately affected how I showed up as a leader because the uncompromising standards I put on myself, I also put on others. The choice to hammer mistakes creates the expectation that you shouldn’t ever make mistakes - and we all know that fear of failure is the greatest enemy of inspiration and innovation.

According to one of the world’s leading researchers on self-compassion, Kristin Neff, figuring this out will make you a much better leader. In fact, studies show that the benefits of self compassion align with several important leadership skills including emotional intelligence, resilience, growth mindset, integrity, empathy, and compassion toward others.

However, let’s be clear: self compassion doesn’t mean you lower your expectations or just let things slide. Accountability is critical - for all of us - and has nothing to do with being compassionate. The difference lies in how you approach the problem. Self compassion, and Compassionate Leadership, simply helps create a sense of self-worth because it leads people to value their own well-being and recovery after a setback. Which builds resiliency, so we can focus on learning and get back on our feet with ingenuity and courage.

The key idea here is that Compassionate Leadership really requires work and self-reflection. There are hundreds of different approaches and exercises that can help with this. As with anything of this nature, it takes time to find the things that work best for you - however, here are three very successful leadership practices to start with:

1. Journaling. I started journaling years ago and it helped in so many aspects of my personal and professional life. Journaling allows a safe space to share your experiences, thinking, and goal set. In your journal, write down all the situations you experience where self-compassion would serve you. That way you will be more mindful of when these situations occur and you can put self-compassion into practice. You can also journal about when you’ve successfully practiced self-compassion. It will reinforce the habit.

2. Exercises. There are many exercises that can help with self-compassion. I have three go-to exercises from Kristin Neff that I use regularly to help keep things in check and front of mind.

A. How would you treat a friend?

So that presentation didn’t go as well as you hoped or you didn’t win the proposal your team was excited about. If this happened to your best friend, would you remind them of their failure all week long? Or would you encourage them to focus on the good? What would you say? What tone of voice would you use? This exercise teaches us to change our perspective and be our own cheerleader.

B. Changing your critical self talk

When I notice that self-critical voice popping into my head, I observe what she is saying and the tone of voice used. That inner critic is stubborn so I’ve learned she needs to feel heard too. Every time she appears, we have a conversation. Instead of telling her to back off, I ask her if I can say a few things as well - using the words and tone I would use to speak with my best friend.

C. Identifying what you really want

This exercise is a really important one for me personally. I have long used self-criticism as a motivator (without long term success) but as my dad used to say, you catch more bees with honey. We all have unwanted traits but instead of focusing on what’s wrong try to focus on the pain this self judgement is causing you. Is your self criticism productive and creating the sustainable change you are seeking? Most likely not. Talking to yourself with kindness and encouraging words will allow you to get in touch with the root cause of this self judgement. Supportive words will evoke the shift in habits needed to achieve what it is you really want to change.

3. Meditation. I recognize that meditation may not be for everyone. The chanting, the incense, the absolute stillness and silence when there is so much to get done. But what if I told you it does not have to look like this – that meditation is really just a pause in your day, and it only requires 5 or 10 minutes. It is an opportunity to check in with yourself, your breath, any tension you may be experiencing in your body and connect the dots to why. If you’re interested in learning more, here is a link to Kristin Neff’s guided meditation practices. Another great resource is the app 10% Happier, which is a no nonsense meditation guide for skeptics. Practicing these things regularly has been a game changer for me. As an entrepreneur, and HR consultant, I am continually faced with challenging situations I have never experienced before– from managing a business and team through COVID to leading clients through emotionally charged situations such as workplace investigations and layoffs. Practicing self compassion in my leadership has allowed a safe space for me and my team to learn, grow, and share. This growth mindset allows the team at VIMY to expand perspectives and experiences which ultimately allows us to provide our clients better advice and support.

Looking for advice on how to lead and manage your people in a compassionate way? Contact us at or text 403-478-7710.

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