Publish date: 05 April 2022
Travis Schultz

The character traits of exceptional leaders have been analysed, critiqued and extolled by many for centuries, even millennia. Think Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Bonaparte, Ghandi, Churchill, JFK.

What are those traits and have the evaluating ‘experts’ got it right?  Certainly, being a visionary, communicating effectively, taking accountability and empowering team members are important – if not essential.  However, the effectiveness of your work will never rise above your ability to lead and influence others.

People don’t want to be managed. They want to be led.

In the words of Midja Fisher, a recognised expert in developing legal leaders, and a former partner in an ASX listed national law firm,

“If law firms are to survive and thrive in this market, they need to develop great legal leaders. They can no longer pluck their best technical lawyers and appoint them people managers, hoping they will rise to the occasion.  Market-leading law firms are investing time and energy into leadership development, facilitating soft-skills training”

According to the Sheffield University studies on the application of emotional intelligence in the workplace, people management is three times as important as Research and Development (R&D) and six times more important than Business Strategy in improving productivity and performance.

In essence, emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to tune in and understand your own emotions and to be able to read, understand and know how to respond to the emotions of others.

Tuning in and truly listening to your people builds trust. 

Whilst I don’t pretend that it’s the only necessary attribute, the ability of a leader to engage in compassionate listening is critical to building the trust that will engage and align the team to vision and purpose.

When we move into a compassionate state, we are committed to helping our people, not simply acknowledging them as we do when we empathise. With compassion, we ask “How can we help?”  For leaders, recognising the difference between empathy and compassion is critical for inspiring and managing others effectively, according to Rasmas Hougaard, author of The Mind of the Leader, published in conjunction with Harvard Business Review.

To me, compassionate listening isn’t just a tokenistic action of (as my year eight Geography teacher often said), “Pens down and listen up”. It involves three equally important steps:

1.     Intuitive listening;

2.     Understanding and engaging;

3.     Asking how we can help.

By intuitive listening, I mean listening to understand, not simply listening to respond. Being present.  Not interrupting. No distractions. Asking questions. Listening with your eyes, with your heart and mind open. 

Checking your mobile phone for messages at this point or even looking at your watch will only serve to convince your team member that you don’t really care!

Secondly, it’s necessary to both understand and engage – ask questions, respond non-verbally and seek a deeper understanding of the issue and perspective. Have the emotional intelligence to withstand the urge to jump in and tell.  Only give advice when you truly understand where the other person is coming from and why.

Finally, compassionate listening requires both reinforcement and proof. By repeating and verbalising the concerns, by identifying with their situation and by suggesting potential paths forward, the highly effective and compassionate listener will earn respect, confidence and trust – the credibility required to lead.

The antithesis of compassionate listening, of course, is the hypocrisy of non-consultative managers who simply berate or demand that their subjects “Do as I say, but not what I do”.

The good news for leaders is that by strengthening our own compassionate skills, we experience significantly more positive emotions ourselves as compassion’s strength is drawn from the same neural networks as love – as opposed to empathy, which is associated with fear and suffering.

And, there’s nothing more disarming than a leader who admits to their own shortcomings, sharing a story of their mistakes and showing genuine interest in and concern for their team. Couple this with compassionate listening and a leader will quickly establish trust and credibility. When giving honest yet respectful feedback to a team member about a mistake they made, I find that nothing lowers the hackles like a story of a similar blunder that I made at some stage in my career. Give credit, take blame and admit to your own shortcomings!  And always listen actively to what they have to tell you about their perspective of the error.

When you speak you say something you already know, when you listen you just might learn something.

By engaging in this way and treating staff with sensitivity, respect and honesty, an emotionally intelligent leader benefits more than just the organisation – their team will take their fulfilment home and feeling valued, become better stewards in their domestic lives as well. The circle of trust becomes the ring of empathy.

Above all, compassionate listening enables a leader to be  effective; building character ahead of competence – with trust and transparency trumping technical expertise.

Travis Schultz discusses Attitude Over Aptitude on the Monday’s with Midja podcast, listen here.


Travis Schultz
Managing Partner
View Bio >

Interesting article? Share it around.