There are so many leadership books, podcasts, TED Talks, and articles such as this all vying for our attention, each trying to point the way forward to compelling leadership approaches that work for competitive advantage.

So, what does great leadership actually look like? True leadership in its purest form is behavioral and relational in nature. To measure yourself to the highest standards of leadership means measuring yourself against the soft stuff, not the hard stuff.

In his latest book, The Excellence Dividend, legendary management thinker Tom Peters notes: Hard is soft. Soft is hard. In other words, "Hard" (the plans, numbers, and systems) is "soft." "Soft" (people, relationship, culture) is "hard."

Peters's thinking is in line with my own, as well as the slew of thought-leaders, execs, scholars, and authors I've interviewed about the powerhouse of soft skills. 

The menu for soft skills development has many virtuous options: respect, kindness, inclusion, gratitude, empathy, and transparency, to name a few. But one soft skill that we all generally agree on that makes a great leader, per the measure of "the soft stuff," can be summarized into one "law of leadership" that will raise your capacity to lead exceptionally well.

The Law of Compassion

In a twist of fate that leaves command-and-control hierarchies baffled, more evidence is coming out to suggest that compassion makes the difference in people-centric businesses. 

LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, perhaps the most outspoken of any high-profile leader on the effects of "compassionate management," tweeted in 2017: 

Big misconception about managing compassionately is that it's a "soft" skill. Most compassionate people I know are typically the strongest.

-- Jeff Weiner (@jeffweiner) October 6, 2017

To back it up, The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science documents compassion as an individual, group, organizational, and cultural force of nature that positively changes lives and transforms companies.

One prolific study found that organizations characterized by higher levels of compassion (and other virtuous behaviors, like forgiveness) increased performance, innovation, customer retention, profitability, and quality. They also had considerably less employee turnover.

One Way to Lead with Compassion

What does it look like in practice? While the examples are too many to list in one article, the important thing to remember is this: The compassionate response of every leader should be to do everything in their power to remove the pain and alleviate the suffering of employees.

A great example depicted in the Oxford Handbook is that of Phil Lynch, former president of Reuters America. As researchers Monica Worline and Jane Dutton tell the story, on September 11, 2001, Lynch sprung to action after watching terrorists fly planes into the World Trade Center towers, where several Reuters employees lost their lives. The collapse of the towers also destroyed Reuters's business infrastructure that connected them to their clients.

Assessing priorities and who came first, Lynch's immediate response was issuing out this order to his executive team: "People first, then customers, then the business."

Directing attention to the suffering and actually modeling a compassionate response for others to adapt, "Phil and his team issued regular updates about the crisis, employees' safety, and activities to help the recovery, emphasizing, again and again, those three priorities."

Answering tough questions on global teleconferences during the crisis, full transparency was on display as Lynch responded openly about what leaders were feeling, as well as the steps Reuters was taking to take care of their employees first, then customers.

While your organization may not be in a state of crisis for you to model a compassionate response, you can respond compassionately in your day-to-day, as a leader, by doing things like:

  • Removing obstacles from the path of your employees so that they are set up for success.
  • Listening more about what peoples' needs are and then acting on what you hear.
  • Making a concentrated effort to be transparent and inclusive to increase the value of teamwork.
  • Owning up to making mistakes and committing to fixing problems when they arise.
  •  Looking compassionately at your people by stepping into their shoes and asking, "What would I want from my job? What would make me excited to come to work?"