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Compassionate and Vulnerable Leadership: Focusing on the Those Being Led

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Dave Updike, Tracy Rickman, Ygnacio “Nash” Flores & Don Mason
February 10, 2023

Leadership has many definitions depending on the books we read and our sources of learning. When leaders aspire to lead others with compassion, this practice enhances teamwork in many ways. People are an asset, and although some may consider employees on the liability side of an organization’s spreadsheet, we should consider the practice of creating, motivating and inspiring others. Doing so will lead them to be the best in what they do for the organization and strive to help others be their best. The effect of this practice will support a cohesive team that strives for excellence. Employees, after all, are human capital. Creating the best people results in the best performance.  

A leader must be compassionate in a group setting where established goals and a mission or end state are known. Defining compassion as a leadership trait differs from what many believe this word means. Compassion gets its history from English and old French heritage. As a verb, it means to be sympathetic, pitiful or concerned for others. In the leadership ecosystem, this means suffering together and having concern for those suffering. Suffering ranges across the emotional spectrum from minimal to severe. Knowing where the relationship between the employee and suffering is on this spectrum aids the administrator in their response.  

In public safety, a fire chief can have compassion for firefighters battling a three-alarm fire in temperatures below zero. Compassion is not only an understanding of the term but supplies action-oriented steps to its meaning. When firefighters see the chief with them, on the fire ground, suffering as they are in the extreme cold weather, this type of leadership will build morale and supports a standard of “suffering” together. People can understand and find strength in common compassionate traits. Compassionate leadership develops an environment where psychological safety is lived in an organization and employees share in the ownership of actions and the organization. 

Although most organizations seek ways to reduce their vulnerabilities that could harm the organization’s effectiveness or efficiency, being vulnerable as an administrator is something to explore as a positive leadership trait. As an administrator, being vulnerable does not mean weakness. Instead, vulnerability means understanding one’s abilities and reaching past our considered norms while taking calculated risks. Incorporating vulnerability into a leadership style strengthens the administrator’s authenticity in the organization.  

Being open and willing to display weakness and risk harm is a trait administrators should embrace as they explore leading others toward a common goal. Employees that see their administrators take risks exposes the leader’s vulnerabilities. Being not-so-perfect in these situations builds trust in the organizational team. Administrators that acknowledge and overcome their vulnerabilities through risk-taking actions improve group dynamics. Vulnerable leaders also tend to show a compassionate leadership style that employees will admire and model in their own behavior. No one wants to be susceptible to potential harm or appear as weak; however, strength is achievable through being vulnerable. The example of listening to others, building organizational relationships and discussing and hearing constructive criticism on your leadership style is all part of being vulnerable yet compassionate. In building trust and having others see your genuine concern for them, not only will the organization flourish, but individuals will also grow in understanding how best to treat others in the workplace. 

While many leaders seek gratification within definitions of success, a compassionate leader will show humility and provide confidence that reflects concern for others. While striving not to let the ego make decisions based on compassion, leaders should often “check” themselves to ensure global respect for others exists within the organization. Egos have a hard time existing where a true compassionate leader exists. Leaders that do not meld a vulnerable aspect to a sympathetic viewpoint may not earn the respect of those that follow them. As an administrator leads a team, they must ask themselves to consider the dimensions of compassion and vulnerability. Leadership can be challenging in any given situation. Understanding the concepts of compassion and suffering and the possibility of exposure will aid good leaders in their quest for success while building a bridge for future challenges within the organization. 

Leaders who do not embrace vulnerability as part of their leadership present themselves as inflexible and know-it-alls, qualities that detract from organizational effectiveness and efficiency. Leaders strengthen their character by embracing their limitations. Leaders can use their vulnerabilities to stimulate creativity and growth in their employees.    

Authors: Fire Chief H. Dave Updike, ICT2. Dr. Tracy Rickman is faculty at Tarleton State University. Dr. Ygnacio “Nash” Flores and Don Mason are faculty at Rio Hondo College. 

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