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Why Great Leaders Start With Compassion Great leadership means getting the most out of your people, but not at any cost. Good leaders always lead with compassion.

By GG van Rooyen

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GG Van Rooyen

Vital Stats

  • Player: Wonder Jonamu
  • Company: Samaritan Leadership Institute
  • What they do: Executive leadership assessment and development; and leadership courses. Wonder holds a MCom in Industrial & Organisational Psychology and is a registered psychometrist with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA).
  • Visit: www.samaritanleadership.com

The modern business landscape has a leadership problem, says Wonder Jonamu.

"We've seen a lot of leadership failures lately, both within the political and business spheres. Leaders are encouraged to be tough, decisive and get results.

"There's nothing wrong with this in theory, but it can lead to an overly aggressive and autocratic leadership style that can be detrimental to the long-term health of a company."

These days, the Silicon Valley tech scene is the main trendsetter when it comes to business leadership. People like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page have become the shining examples. It's all about gathering data, implementing innovative systems and processes, and pushing employees to find the best possible solution to any problem.

Is it a bad thing to model your business after the funky Google or Facebook, or to have Apple's absolute obsession with design? Not necessarily, but chasing fads won't fix a fundamental leadership problem within a company.

"The problem with a fad is that it consumes people in the hype of exciting buzzwords, but delivers very little impact on real business tangibles. Fads are topical; they merely represent the popular thinking of the day. So, what happens is that leaders talk about these topical buzzwords in the boardroom, but it doesn't translate to the bottom line," says Wonder.

It's not about fads

Wonder, who recently penned a book titled Samaritan Leadership, isn't trying to push another fad. Unlike many other books on this ever-popular topic, there are no slick mantras or checklists that promise to instantly turn any founder or CEO into a great leader.

"There is no one-size-fits-all solution to leadership," says Wonder. "It all depends on the nature of the business, the leader and the employees. Leadership is a very fluid concept, so you need to ask yourself: What does leadership mean to me?"

Wonder recommends doing a very thorough personal assessment of your leadership style. "You need to question your leadership style. What are my aims when I engage with my employees? How do I come across to other people?

"Not enough leaders take the time to ask and answer these questions. To get real answers, you have to be brave enough to sit down with the people you lead and ask them for complete honesty. By doing this, you'll discover your own blindspots."

Of course, the whole situation becomes even more complicated when you're dealing with tough economic times or an existential threat to the business. It's easy to be benevolent as a leader when business is booming, but what happens when the company starts to struggle? That's when results start to dominate the conversation and leaders start acting like taskmasters.

Leading with compassion

So, how can you be an effective leader, especially when times are tough and results are crucial? Wonder is quick to point out that being a good leader doesn't mean being friends with your employees. As a leader, you need to be firm and hold people accountable, but the important thing is to do it with compassion.

"With our modern focus on data, leaders can lose touch with the reality on the ground. When you look only at the numbers, you start to treat your employees like nothing more than a commodity. You could call that management, but you couldn't call that good leadership," says Wonder.

According to Wonder, good leadership requires compassion. "It's about looking at the whole person, and not just at the role someone plays within the organisation. Too many leaders pay so little attention to employees, that they don't even notice when something is obviously wrong.

"As a leader, you need to notice what's happening with those around you. Are they scared or depressed? Is there a lack of morale? You need to look both at teams and individuals. A team might be doing great overall, but an individual might be struggling. You need to notice these things."

Another issue is the lack of compassion with which news is often delivered. Leaders simply disseminate information, without thinking about the impact it will have on people.

"It is your responsibility to create a compassionate environment where people aren't afraid to share their thoughts and worries. You need to communicate, and you need to allow others to communicate."

The good news is that Wonder believes that anyone can be a great leader. "Leadership is a skill that you need to develop. It requires practice," says Wonder. "The focus should be on compassion. When you come from a place of compassion, you'll treat your employees fairly, regardless of whether you are praising them for great work, or dealing with mistakes they've made.

"A great way to develop compassion is through mindfulness exercises. It will help you to treat both yourself and others with compassion. Only when you start engaging with people on a compassionate level and making yourself vulnerable in the process can you become a great leader."

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