Three lessons we can learn from Linkedin CEO’s leadership philosophy

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You may have noticed I talked about compassion quite often on this blog, I believe it is one of the most fundamental human qualities that we can cultivate to better not only our own lives, but also the world around us. A growing number of scientific evidence supports the psychological and physical benefit of compassion. For example, research shows that being compassionate makes us feel good by activating pleasure circuit in our brain, enhances our relationship and positive perception at work, and even reduces our risk of heart disease.

However, when I raise the topic of compassion with executives and professionals in the business world, I don’t always get a positive response. Sometimes people roll their eyes and don’t really appreciate how this seemingly “soft” quality has to do with effective leadership and business success.

So I was really glad when I came across this ainterview with Jeff Weiner, the CEO of Linkedin, who talked about the art of conscious leadership and what it means to manage compassionately.  In this interview, Jeff shared how he developed his personal vision as well as how people at Linkedin lived and breathed their company vision and values by focusing on leading compassionately every day.  

Jeff talked about three things he learnt about compassionate leadership over the years:

1. The meaning of compassion differs from empathy.  Empathy is about feeling how others feel without necessarily taking any action. In contrast, compassion goes a step further – when you feel compassionate towards somebody, you not only see the challenges and the suffering from the other person’s eyes, but also take actions to help them overcome the challenges and alleviate the suffering.

2. Compassion can be taught and developed. Jeff shared a story about Jane Elliot, a primary school teacher in the US, who felt she needed to do something after the assassination of Martin Luther King. She decided to carry out an experiment by dividing her class into the two groups, one named “brown-eyed people” and another “blue-eyed people”. The experiment taught the students what it felt like to be treated differently just because of different eye colours. A follow-up study years later found that a large number of students in that class went on to actively support human rights movements. Jeff shared how compassion is manifested at Linkedin: everyone is encouraged to develop honest and trustworthy relationship at work. Individuals and teams develop and practice compassion through embodying the core value that relationship matters. 

3. Conscious leadership combines wisdom and compassion. Jeff explained how he developed his personal vision, “expanding the world’s collective wisdom and compassion”, after an inspiring conversation with his friend Fred Hofman, the author of “Conscious Business”. Personally I think this is a very compelling and worthy vision especially from someone who is leading one of the largest Silicon valley company with over 200 million users. Jeff’s vision made me reflect on the role of technologies in modern society. We now have instant access to information in the world through technology, and have expanded our knowledge significantly in science, nature and humanity; but still the question worth asking is, have our collective wisdom, consciousness and compassion expanded too?

So what lessons can we learn from Jeff’s leadership philosophy and what can we do to be compassionate leaders in our lives, communities and organisations? 

1. Compassionate leadership starts with leading oneself.

When watching the interview, I was impressed by how present Jeff was, as well as his excellent awareness of how his own character, emotions, thoughts and projects affect people around him and the business he leads.

Kevin Cashman, the author of “Leadership from the inside out”, wrote that  from his decades working with leaders he found that great leaders all have extraordinary levels of self-awareness – they know who they are, what they stand for, what matters most to them, and how their own vision, purpose and behaviour may affect those around them.

It is difficult to imagine that someone who is not aware of his own thoughts and emotions or treat himself with compassion can lead others compassionately. Being compassionate towards oneself is not about being self-indulgent or feeling complacent with oneself, but about recognising one’s strengths as well as weaknesses, accepting ourselves for who we are, acknowledging our thoughts, emotions and beliefs and how they impact our relationship with others. 

Great leaders know how to take different perspectives and see things from other people’s eyes. It is very easy for us to project our own assumptions or styles on others (for example, micromanaging is often a symptom of a manager projecting his own insecurity onto his subordinates). Only by leading oneself with awareness and compassion, can a leader go on and lead others with greater effectiveness.

2. Have a clear and compelling vision and purpose.

In his popular TED talk, Simon Sinek explains how great leaders inspire – it always starts with the “why”. He argues that very few organisations know why they do what they do. “Why” is not about making money, or making shareholders happy. Instead, it is a cause, purpose and belief. It is the reason your organisation exists. Once you know the “why”, you can then figure out the “how” (how you fulfil your purpose) and the “what” (“what product or service you provide).

Taking Linkedin for example, Jeff told us that its vision is to create economic opportunities for every professional in the world. Notice that the vision here is not about Linkedin being the leading professional network platform – that is the “how”.

Another example comes from Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, who wrote in his book “Delivering Happiness” that after four years of being in the business, the leaders of the company asked themselves: “what do we want to be when we grow bigger? Do we want to be about shoes or something more meaningful?” That’s when they decided that the Zappos brand is about the very best customer service and customer experience. 

It is no coincidence that “purposeful capitalism” has become a popular phrase these days. The next generation is not only looking for work that provides salary and stability, but more importantly are looking for meaning in their work. They long to do work that matters to them and contributes to something larger than themselves.

In his book “Conscious Business”, Fred Kofman argues that a conscious organisation starts with what matters most to us: a commitment to achieving a vision that exceeds any individual capacity, a vision that connects people in common efforts with genuine meanings. As a leader, do you know the “why” – both for yourself, and for your organisation? Are you clear on what connects your people together? How will you create the right environment, condition and strategy to realise your vision and purpose?

3. Focus on developing people, rather than only solving problems.

In day-to-day business, problem-solving is often the first thing leaders do when their teams encounter a challenge. Problem-solving is necessary to overcome difficulties and implement strategies, but what business leaders often ignore is the more important aspect of the business: developing people. Yes, it is perhaps not always as urgent as solving a burning issue in business,  but that does not mean it’s not important. There is a large amount of research which shows that people’s engagement and commitment to work can be largely predicted by their perception of how much the leadership team care about them, their well-being and growth opportunities. 

In his interview, Jeff explained that compassionate leadership took form in Linkedin through coaching. Compared to problem solving, coaching requires more patience and efforts and in some cases may not result in immediate tangible results. However, it is still worth pursuing for the longer term, as developing a coaching culture helps create an open and honest environment where people can build genuine relationships within the team and across the organisations.

Developing a coaching culture not only requires knowledge and intelligence, but also a sense of responsibility, compassion and wisdom from the leaders. Through coaching, leaders can help their people build their own self-awareness by reflecting their own purpose, values and strengths. Coaching takes various forms, from adopting a more appreciative approach (rather than being stuck in a “blame culture”) in the face of an obstacle, to enabling actions that play to people’s strengths rather than focusing only on their weaknesses. 

In today’s world, we don’t lack leaders who can inspire an organisation to achieve performance goals, and to create shareholder values. What we lack, however, are leaders who aspire to develop an organisation as a conscious human community where each individual can bring the whole person to work, treat each other with respect and compassion, and realise their true potentials. This way, the organisation will not only create long-term value, but also become a change agent to the advancement of the society and humanity.

I’d love to hear what you think – Where do you see the role of compassion in your career, business and life? What have you taken away from Jeff’s interview? Please feel free share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

Until next time, 


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