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Want to be a better leader? Start with self-compassion.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – In a culture that glamourizes reaching the top of the leadership ladder and serving as a guiding light when challenges arise, there is a stark contrast with how leaders actually feel in their roles.

As many as 88% of people in leadership positions find leading to be the most stressful part of their job and “being recognized as a leader” is among the top concerns for people in leadership roles, according to recent data.

Researchers from the University of Florida Warrington College of Business have pinpointed a low-cost tool for organizations to mitigate the negative stressors that come with leading, and all it takes is a little self-compassion.

Klodiana Lanaj and Remy Jennings

Martin L. Schaffel Professor Klodiana Lanaj and Management Ph.D. student Remy Jennings.

Warrington’s Martin L. Schaffel Professor Klodiana Lanaj and Ph.D. student Remy Jennings, with Susan J. Ashford of the University of Michigan and Satish Krishnan of the Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode, find that on days when leaders engage in leader role self-compassion, they can assist others more with both work-related tasks and personal problems due to a stronger identification with their leader role.

But what exactly is leader role self-compassion? Lanaj and Jennings explain that it is reflecting about typical leadership hardships and challenges with an attitude of acceptance and kindness, recognizing that everyone struggles as a leader from time to time.

For example, when struggling to motivate an underperforming employee, it is telling yourself that, “Yes, managing my underperforming employee is hard and stressful, but I am sure this experience is common to all leaders. I am not the only one struggling with this.” Or when a team meeting did not go as smoothly as expected, it is saying to yourself, “Yes, I could have been clearer in conveying my expectations to my reports in that meeting. But I need to be patient with myself – I am still learning. I am sure other leaders struggle with similar thoughts.”

Self-compassion is treating yourself with kindness, support, and care in face of challenges, like you would treat a good friend who came to you for some encouragement. 

Lanaj and colleagues conducted two field experiments with groups of leaders in India and in the United States and found that when leaders took a few minutes to write about challenges and hardships that they had faced in their leader role with an attitude of self-compassion, they embraced their leader role more readily. The authors note that by normalizing leadership hardships, self-compassion reduces fear of failure in the leader role and reminds leaders of their value to the organization, thus helping them see themselves as more leaderlike.

In one of their field experiments, Lanaj and colleagues found that on days when leaders engaged in leader role self-compassion in the morning before they started work, they identified more strongly with their leader role, and in turn were more compassionate toward their coworkers by helping them more with work and personal issues. Coworkers rated these leaders as being kinder and more competent that day.

Taking a self-compassionate perspective, therefore, was a win-win for all involved – coworkers received more helping from self-compassionate leaders, and self-compassionate leaders were seen as more effective by their coworkers.

Leaders struggle with a host of role-specific issues at work that makes self-compassion beneficial for them. For example, in their data, Lanaj and colleagues found that some leaders described times when they failed to meet client demands and were faced with harsh words. These leaders showed compassion to themselves by telling themselves that their team was doing the best it could under the circumstances, not to take the harsh words personally, and that negative feedback from clients was part of the work. Remembering how they had handled past challenges with grace and kindness equipped these leaders for the challenges of the day ahead, ultimately improving their effectiveness in the leader role.

Interestingly, the authors found that leader role self-compassion was most beneficial for managers who were at lower levels of the organizational hierarchy. Their findings suggest that novice leaders – those who may not have as much organizational power and who may have less experience or success dealing with leadership hardships – may benefit the most from taking a leader role self-compassionate perspective.

There is no doubt that the job of a leader is hard, but a little self-compassion can go a long way by encouraging leaders to immerse themselves in their role in ways that ultimately benefit their coworkers and leaders’ own performance.

This research is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.