With Memorial Day not in the too distant past and as a member of a family with deep military service roots, I couldn’t help but reflect on leadership characteristics and whether these vary significantly from those we talk about in business. I reached out to my sister and my brother, service members in the Army and Marine Corps, to gain some insight.
My question to them was fairly broad: “What do you consider to be the three most important leadership characteristics in the military?” What is most interesting to me about their answer is that they each independently said, “Compassion.”
I don’t know about you, but when I think about military leadership, compassion is not a word that immediately comes to mind. Discipline, rigor, mental fortitude… But compassion? So I dug a little deeper.
The word compassion comes from Old French, derived from the Latin word “compassio” meaning to “suffer with.” Synonyms include: kindness, tolerance, sensitivity, and concern. This resonates with me for my sister, but these are not the terms I would use to describe my brother, who by all accounts is a man’s man.
Where do these assumptions and stereotypes of leadership come from? So much has been written about the differences between men and women on leadership styles (a quick Google search returned over four million results in less than half a second), that it was refreshing to me to hear about something we might strive to have in common. This leads me to believe that we may be asking the wrong question when we focus on “male” vs. “female” leadership traits. Instead, should we just be asking what makes a good leader, period?
For both of my siblings, showing compassion is critical as their teams are only as strong as of each of their individual soldiers. Compassion is about recognizing each individual and meeting that person wherever he or she is in life. Hearing this from both of them confirmed for me that this leadership trait transcends gender lines. But does it also apply outside of the military? I can say that I see compassion as a trait that may have a different name at my company, but carries the same significance.
At Liberty Mutual Insurance, our employees are guided by a set of principles that includes “We treat each other with dignity and respect.” What we are saying is that each employee has the innate right to be valued. What my brother and sister describe as compassion is the explicit demonstration of leadership that makes each individual feel valued.
As part of our continuous improvement culture, front line and operations managers are meeting with their teams on a daily basis. These short meetings are designed to promote a discussion on the team’s performance relative to targets, and provide visibility and transparency into the barriers the team might be facing which could impede progress.
But, before launching into the data, each manager is expected to check the pulse of the team by way of asking each individual how he or she is feeling. Yep, feelings in the workplace. Why? An employee who feels valued and included will give more of his or her discretionary effort to the company. An engaged employee provides better customer service which in turn drives better results for the company.
So, whether you are on the frontline, or manage those on the frontline – compassion is not just for women. Turns out it’s good management practice and it’s a thread that will knit together your team for the better.
Precillia Redmond is the senior director of corporate human resources and administration at Liberty Mutual Insurance. Precillia earned her MBA from the Olin School of Business at Babson College and specializes in human resources strategy. She already has her dream job and enjoys Forté events.