What a Special Forces Commander Taught Me About Compassionate Leadership
I didn’t expect the topic of compassion and empathy to come up in my conversation with Chris.
Chris was a Green Beret and a combat commander — he was in the Army for decades. He’s literally advised presidents of countries and led special operations units across three continents (that I know of). And here he is telling me why compassion is a critical element of leadership.
I was in the military for 15 years myself. I was in combat and led teams across three continents, too. I was never in the types of elite units that Chris was, but I did work with a lot of them. And the word “compassion” never crossed my mind.
How does Chris, an SF operator, define and describe this side of leadership? What is the connection between being empathetic and being directive? How do we bridge this gap and how do we know where to strike a balance?
Competence / Compassion Model
The leadership concept that Chris introduced me to was the spectrum of competence and compassion. In how he described it to me, every leader needs to have both competence and compassion as cornerstones. These are his foundational tenets of effective, genuine leadership.
Why this exists on a spectrum, though, is because we need to be able to flex and adapt how much of each we bring to the team. Depending on the context, we may need to bring in more compassion to connect and be real, support and motivate the team. Depending on the context, we may need to bring in more competence to direct the team and get practical about next steps and outcomes.
The glue that ties this all together is clarity. It’s not enough to be competent and compassionate, we must show and communicate these qualities in a clear, compelling way. Clear competence builds trust in how the team is executing its mission. Clear compassion builds trust in why the team is doing it.
I thought about what Chris shared with me about these concepts, and I visualized it as two counterweights of competence and compassion on a seesaw of clarity and context.
Lead with Competence
In the model above, the goal is to balance the two leadership tenets of competence and compassion. The best approach depends on how much of each you start with, and depends on the current context and circumstances.
Competence is critical. And it doesn’t just mean being knowledgeable or having expertise. In fact, we might have little of this, but as leaders would still be called to lead with competence.
This is the practical, task-oriented side of leadership. Competence means breaking down the issue and hand and building tangible next steps and a clear path forward. It’s not about knowing the answers so much as it is about investing the time to figure them out.
The risk for highly compassionate leaders, then, is that the competence side of the seesaw is neglected. The model would be out of balance. Yes, the team is important, but ask yourself: what am I doing as a leader to provide guidance and clear next steps to my team? How am I balancing out caring for them with the hard truths about what needs to be done and where they might be falling short? How am I missing opportunities to build trust by showing up as a leader?
Lead with Compassion
Competence, though, is not the only part of the recipe. On the other side of the seesaw is compassion. This means being empathetic and understanding of the situation, being open and accepting of individual needs.
This is the emotional, team-oriented side of leadership. Compassion is an opportunity to build team trust and psychological safety at a deep level. While competence helps to build trust from the top-down, compassion invites humanity to the equation and builds trust from the bottom up. This can be a powerful result.
I was surprised to hear an SF operator talk about these traits that, in my military career, I might have thought of as “fluffy.” But special operations teams exist at the edge of performance, where trust is critical and the need for everyone to feel comfortable speaking up is high. It’s a beautiful idea that compassion becomes more important as the mission becomes more demanding.
The risk for competence-focused leaders is that they miss this human connection. We can drive toward a goal and provide competent leadership along the way but, if we don’t stop to tend to how people are feeling and what their needs are, we’ll run out of fuel fast. Ask yourself: how am I taking care of my team members? What am I doing to show people that I care about what they’re going through and that it matters? What can I do to build trust from the bottom up?
Connect with Clarity
I’ve realized that the thing connecting the spectrum between competence and compassion is clear, unambiguous communication. Clarity is the part of the seesaw that holds these two dimensions up.
We can be the most competent leader in the world, working our plans out to the second and accounting for every contingency. But if we don’t share that with clarity and communicate this down and around, it’s pointless. It falls off the seesaw.
We can be the most compassionate leader, too, and be genuinely concerned with our team and their wellbeing. But if we don’t show that to them, if we don’t ask them, it’s lost. Our compassion must be clear to the team, too. They’re the people who decide if their leader cares about them or not.
Keep the Context in Mind
I added one final piece to the model Chris shared: context or circumstance. When I was thinking about how to apply this in my own life, or how this played out in my own teams, I realized that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
Depending on who’s in the team and depending on the task at hand, we might need to flex either our competence or our compassion more. Imagine this as the anchor point of the seesaw, the fulcrum. As it shifts so does the balance.
Although the balance might shift, let’s remember that it’s still a balance. We might need a lot more compassion in one circumstance, but if we don’t have any competence the seesaw won’t be level. And vice versa.
The most meaningful part of this model to me is that we as leaders can flex between these dimensions. Each situation and team calls for a different mix of leadership skills. Yes, we should grow in our ability to give competent guidance. Yes, we should build our muscle for compassion and empathy. But the real message here is developing a range that holds both.
There were four cornerstones of the model:
Competence, leading with authority and providing candid guidance and explicit direction
Compassion, leading with empathy and offering support and humanity to the team
Clarity, communicating openly and doing all the above with no ambiguity
Context, adapting the approach to match the situation
We visualized these cornerstones as a seesaw in balance. I appreciated Chris sharing this approach with me because I had never thought of it in this way. The fact that he’s been a leader in some of the most difficult situations and adverse conditions adds that much more weight to the concept.
I hope you find something meaningful here, too. Good luck finding the balance.
Christopher Schmitt is a former US Army Green Beret who led teams in Afghanistan, the Sahara, and the Balkans. He founded Azimuth Consulting Group to facilitate leadership workshops and non-traditional, adventure-based development programs.
Jason R. Waller is a US Army combat veteran and intelligence officer who deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas of Asia and Africa during his 15-year career. After working for McKinsey & Company, he became a founder, an executive coach, and a top writer on Medium.
Originally published in The Startup