The Perils of ‘Idiot Compassion’

Early in my career, I managed a law firm. One of our administrative assistants – we’ll call her Liz – was consistently late to work. I knew that Liz had a very difficult home life; she lived in poverty with her mother, and was relied upon to help care for the younger children. Feeling for Liz’ challenges, I often forgave her tardiness. Compassionate, right? In the moment, maybe. In the long run, not so much. Within a couple of months, the entire administrative staff was playing fast and loose with their own start-times. Because of my leniency toward Liz, I had no credibility when I asked others to get to work on time. I discovered that my failure to skillfully hold standards for one person did direct damage to the productivity and morale of the whole. And all of it was done in the name of compassion.

I was talking recently to a senior leader, who described one of her subordinate  managers as a ‘teddy bear’ (we’ll call him Teddy). Teddy’s direct reports were completely demoralized because he was so gentle with them that they didn’t feel challenged. His most talented and ambitious folks were dying on the vine, withering under Teddy’s soft touch. His so-called kindness was creating personal misery and organizational sub-optimization.

Judy was a leader who thought of herself as a real people-person. Her style was collaborative and she influenced through the power of connection. The problem was that she was being undermined by her peers, who were fiercely loyal to her predecessor. Her only strategy for dealing with them was to amp up her level of collaboration, softening her own boundaries to accommodate their attacks. The result? Her staff suffered tremendously from her lack of advocacy for them. Their reputation suffered and their visibility and resources shriveled up. Judy’s staff did not experience her leadership as compassionate; they experienced it as neglectful.

When leaders take kindness to an extreme, when they fail to establish standards and hold boundaries, they can do real damage. This is what the Buddhists call “idiot compassion:” a kind of collapsed kindness that actually results in harm to self or others. In my own case, my idiot compassion was rooted in a lack of courage to confront something difficult. Maybe we’re avoiding a challenging external situation (as in Judy’s case).  Maybe we don’t want to threaten our self-image as being a ‘good person’ (as in Teddy’s and my case). But idiot compassion is almost always a real disservice.

I’m not advocating the abandonment of compassion. I still believe that it has a vital role in a leader’s efficacy. But ‘idiot compassion’ illustrates one of the key concepts at the heart of Leading With Grit & Grace: that leaning on one strength to the neglect of its opposite can create a stylistic imbalance that can torpedo a leader’s effectiveness, impact and ability to truly serve.

What about you?

Have you ever acted with ‘idiot compassion’ as a leader?

What was your core intention?  Did the result match the intention?

What form(s) of grit would have strengthened your actions, so that your core intention might have been been fulfilled?

How can you use this insight to fortify your effectiveness in a situation you’re currently facing?