Vulnerability and leadership do not traditionally go together. A leader is meant to be strong, tough and willing to hold others accountable no matter what. But new models of leadership are challenging this traditional notion by revealing how vulnerability and compassion can make a leader stronger.
For executive director and founder of the Center for Compassionate Leadership Laura Berland, compassion and vulnerability are essential qualities in leaders.
“When we behave vulnerably, the other person—whether it be the boss or the staff or my peers—they get this resonance that I am being authentic and real,” said Berland in an interview with The Women’s Network-GW. “That creates a very powerful sense of trust and safety.”
From Berland’s perspective, showing compassion for others and for themselves enables those in positions of power to connect more effectively with their team. By not shying away from their personal imperfections, leaders build a space that is supportive, safe and authentic for all those involved. And although—or perhaps because—this model of leadership pushes against traditional conceptions in the corporate world, where Berland began her career, the Fortune 500 executive and meditation teacher was inspired to combine business and contemplation to create the Center for Compassionate Leadership.
“I was on this sort of corporate path and thinking that the only way to be successful was Type-A work,” said Berland on her mindset during the earlier parts of her career.
But when a personal tragedy occurred about 20 years into her career and a friend introduced her to meditation as a form of healing, Berland began to re-evaluate her approach. While she studied meditation, she was still on a corporate career path.
“That’s how the Center came about: bringing these 2 parts of my life together—the business life and the contemplative life,” Berland said.
The Center, founded by Berland in 2019, seeks to guide leaders in the workplace to incorporate compassionate approaches. According to Berland, at its core the model is about shifting from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset in order to allow their teams to develop authentically and effectively. If a mistake is made on a project, for example, rather than expressing an intolerance for errors, leaders should communicate with their team to understand what led to the mistake. By demonstrating vulnerability in this way, leaders will also have reverberating effects upon those that they lead.
One example of this compassionate leadership at work on a broad scale is in the response of New Zealand’s prime minister and Berland’s self-proclaimed idol Jacinda Ardern to the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings. Not only did Ardern call for a worldwide fight against racism, an examination of social media’s impact on the shootings and a ban on semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles, but she was open about her own emotions in the aftermath of the shooting. When asked by a student how she was doing while visiting a school, Arden replied “I am very sad.” Perhaps drawing from their leader’s example of empathy and openness, citizens of New Zealand followed suit through symbolic acts of solidarity such as two-minutes of silence for the victims and a broadcast of the Islamic call to prayer.
But for Berland, it isn’t just compassion for others that is fundamental for a good leader. Those in charge must also be caring of themselves. By prioritizing self-care over other responsibilities, leaders will have more to give to their team.
“If you don’t take care of yourself you really cannot on a sustainable basis take care of others,” said Berland.
Both self-compassion and caring for others contribute to the creation of a more supportive community, whether it be in the workplace, on a national scale, or in another setting. When it comes to women’s empowerment, Berland noted, being open about our achievements allows us to inspire others and find ways to lift one another up. While we might be uncomfortable with cheering ourselves on, doing so actually enables us to show each other what is possible.
“We can’t become ourselves by ourselves,” Berland said.