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Leah Weiss, PhD

Lecturer in Management, Stanford Graduate Business School

Leah Weiss, Ph.D. is a researcher, lecturer, consultant, entrepreneur, and author. She teaches Compassionate Leadership at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where she created the perennially-waitlisted course “Leading with Mindfulness and Compassion.”

She is Founding Faculty at the Compassion Institute. She is also the co-founder of Skylyte – a company that specializes in using the latest neuroscience and behavior change to empower high-performing leaders and managers prevent burnout for themselves and their teams.

Today’s world doesn’t just ask leaders to develop strategies or establish visions. Today’s leaders need to connect with compassion. Leaders who can connect their purpose to their work, their mission to those of the people they lead, who understand and communicate their why, will be the leaders who will change the world.

Louise Clifton spoke to Leah Weiss, professor in Compassionate Leadership at Stanford Graduate Business School about why we need more of this now, and what we can do to make it happen.

Louise: I’d love to know a little more about you, what interested you when you were younger and how does this feed into what you do now?

Leah: Sure, so I’m the youngest of three and we grew up in suburban New Jersey about a half hour outside of New York. I always had really good grades at school but I got into a fair amount of trouble. I pushed a lot of boundaries on rules that I didn’t agree with and I’ve always asked a lot of questions. And when you’re a kid this doesn’t always sit well with authority figures. In fact the day I got into Stanford University I was actually in detention.

Louise: Jumping forward a few years to now, you’re currently teaching the popular Leading with Mindfulness and Compassion course at Stanford Graduate School; why do you think compassion is important in leadership?

Leah: Compassion is critical to create high quality professional relationships. It helps us build effective collaboration, and it makes a foundation for problem solving in stressful and complex times. Ultimately, when you care about your colleagues and see them as human beings, not just job roles, they respond by having higher engagement and loyalty to you, as well as the organisation.

Louise: Do you find that people are open to compassionate leadership?

Developing compassion in leadership isn’t about telling people what to do, it’s about inviting people into a process that they’re the pilot of.”

Leah: There’s lots of research that supports the benefits of compassion and examines the return on investment of developing skills associated with compassionate leadership. Often, when people start seeing the data around how having greater emotional intelligence can improve their career trajectory, their ability to stay healthy, and to be resilient and accomplish the things they themselves value, this is when the conversation turns. I’ve spent a decade developing my ability to articulate what compassionate leadership is, why these skills matter, even building a business case for it because – especially if we’re working with our heart through minds, and being asked to look at core beliefs – I think people should ask questions before they dive in.

I also run a lot of workshops with businesses, and I always encourage people to bring their scepticism about compassionate practices. It’s important for people to find their voice and explore what really matters to them, and to find an approach that fits what they need. Developing compassion in leadership isn’t about telling people what to do, it’s about inviting people into a process that they’re the pilot of.

Louise: That’s definitely a compelling argument for why we need compassion. Where can leaders start to build more of this in their leadership? 

Compassionate leadership starts with purpose.”

Leah: So compassionate leadership starts with purpose. You need to understand your own individual purpose and how it fits in with your organisation, and how you can amplify this purpose with your team and the people around you.

Once you have this foundation, you bring in mindfulness. We all have a lot of parts of our day that are not highly purposeful, but we can do work to frame how each task – even the boring ones – relate to our sense of purpose. To do this, it requires thoughtfulness and reflection; training ourselves to be more focused and emotionally intelligent toward both ourselves and others.

At this point, you also typically start encountering a lot of self-criticism which is extremely prevalent in high performers, and also often higher in women compared to men. This is when you can tap into the research and tools available to train yourself to be better at learning from setbacks, at taking feedback and having a growth mindset.

This is when you can start to see how the new habits you’ve formed about finding purpose, using mindfulness and acknowledging your own patterns of self-criticism become a really great springboard into having greater compassion for yourself and for the people around you, who are also dealing with noisy minds, stress and self-criticism. You come to a place where you say, “they’re just like me”, not “I’m better than them”. And when we understand the commonalities of how we all struggle and can support each other better, this is when we can create high quality connections with each other.

Louise: Thinking about higher education and education in general, what could compassionate leadership do for people here?

Leah: I don’t think it is possible for educators to meet the needs of their students if they can’t respond to the struggles that students face with compassion. When you come to work with a lack of compassion, this leads to emotional exhaustion for you and breaks down the connection between you and your students by depersonalising how you relate to them. Both these symptoms are key signs of burnout in leaders. To stay in a profession like education in the long run, it’s much more viable if you develop an understanding and practice of compassion, which you can rely on when you’re at risk of, or in the throes of, becoming burnt out.

Louise: Drawing on your experience of teaching at Stanford, do you think students are receptive to practices around compassionate leadership?

Leah: I find that my students are extremely receptive and generally very open to questioning and exploring compassion. I tell my students that I’m not going to ask them to agree with things, I’m just going to ask them to try on ideas, try on practices for long enough that they can get an experience of them, and then make decisions about what they want to do about them. You have to try it for long enough to see what it does.

Louise: This idea of asking questions can be quite daunting as you open yourself up to being wrong in sometimes a public way, so professional and personal resilience must be important too?

Leah: I think there’s a really interesting connection, that if we ask questions which help give us clarity about what makes us resilient, then we’re more able to take risks, and when we’re more able to take risks we’re more able to be compassionate to other people and support them.

If you look at the research, and I think it kind of follows on common sense, self-compassion is a really important skill especially for high performers who’ve tremendously high rates of self-criticism. And this self-criticism is the opposite of what supports the growth mindset and the ability to learn from mistakes, improve or bounce back from pain and failure. Resilience and compassion are interdependent.

Louise: Do you have any advice from your own experience about how you grow and stay resilient?

It’s important not to take ourselves too seriously. Keeping a sense of proportion about our efforts to grow, learn and develop. This is part of self-compassion.”

Leah: My practice these days is very much a combination of spending time with my family, meditation and trying to have a sense of humour. I think people can get quite uptight about personal growth and the longer I’m in this work the more I realise it’s important not to take ourselves too seriously. Keeping a sense of proportion about our efforts to grow, learn and develop. This is part of self-compassion, to be able to laugh at yourself, not in a self-deprecating way, but in a loving way as you’d do with a good friend. I think this is an important lesson, because when you’re juggling a lot  – family, travel, teaching – there’s a lot of imperfection going on, and so finding ways to cope with that has to be a priority.

I also do a daily meditation practice. I became really interested in Buddhism when I was younger, and connected with a teacher who inspired my interest in it. Now, I think my most powerful teachers are my children.

Louise: You mentioned that purpose was the starting point of compassionate leadership, so one of the things I’d love to know is about your purpose – why do you do what you do?

I do what I do because I think it is untenable in our world for us to continue accepting the premise that leaders of organisations that control large amounts of resources aren’t accountable beyond their bottom line.”

Leah: I do what I do because I think it is untenable in our world for us to continue accepting the premise that leaders of organisations that control large amounts of resources aren’t accountable beyond their bottom line. And I believe that if we don’t create more compassionate leaders we’re going to continue to run into increasing ecological and humanitarian disaster. I don’t want my daughter entering a workforce that looks like the workforce that exists now, and if we don’t redefine leadership to include an impact on the humans, both within and outside of the organisation, then we’re lost. It’s undeniably untenable and unsustainable. But my hope is that when I work with people I can help embolden and empower them to use the evidence and give a voice to the value and process of creating these changes, that are common sense, yet require resources and therefore business cases and a political kind of currency within organisations. I do what I do because there are people in every organisation who want more human and humane ways of working. So that’s my why.

Louise: So finally, if you could give only one piece of advice to a leader to help cultivate more compassionate leadership, what would it be?

Leah: My top piece of advice is to start by taking a good look at how much of your day is spent on things that are purposeful to you, find the gap between your hope and passion and purpose and where you’re spending your time, and once you identify this, that gives you a trajectory to start to understand what your core beliefs and values are. Ask questions like:

What matters to me and how is that absent from where I’m spending my time?

How might I bring it in?

What’s blocking that within myself and within my organisation and within my team?

How can I develop it?

Also using a practical tool to track purpose in your work is a good starting point. I created a tool to take people into a process of auditing their calendar for either a week or a period of several weeks to track data which they can use to base their inquiry on. This then gives you hard evidence as a foundation to understand where your gaps are and help you start to develop all of these facets of more compassionate leadership.

With thanks to Leah for her time and insight. To find out more about Leah and her work:

Visit Leah Weiss, Humans at Work, and find a wealth of resources on compassionate leadership.

Take a look at Skylyte, an organisation co-founded by Lead that seeks to empower leaders to avoid burnout.

Read the acclaimed ‘How we work: live your purpose, reclaim your sanity, and embrace the daily grind