Being Tough vs. Being Compassionate

Dr. Kai-Fu Lee highlighted what his mentor said about his leadership skill in his “My Journey Into AI” book, as below:

I saw you as a compassionate leader, well liked by most people, but sometimes it takes more than being nice to win people’s respect. As a leader, you must effectively execute what’s good for the company and be a good judge on when to put aside your compassion and become a tough manager.

I could totally relate to this as I’m currently facing a similar situation.

The truth is, before I went to MIT in June 2016, my 360 degrees feedback report showed that everyone, i.e. bosses and subordinates rated me highly on execution. The feedback was consistent across all levels, internal and external teams, which means I’m very good at execution, without a doubt. But, at the expense of burning bridges. Not in the extreme case where I created enemies that they refused to talk to me, but they felt that they were just doing the job because I asked them to. When I received the report, I thought to myself, in my defense, there were a lot of ad-hoc requests (back then) and everyday felt like we were fire fighting especially in 2H 2015 when China devalued Yuan causing blood bath in the market. Hence, there was no time to explain, no time to syndicate, no time for consensus-based decision making. You gotta do what you gotta do.

But as I reflected upon the feedback, I realized that in some situations especially when you have to make changes, not incremental changes but transformational changes, you need to build repo with the right people,  you need to create ally, you need to get support from the right people, you need a team to follow you, you need to syndicate earlier on.

Upon returning to the organization after a year at MIT, I tried to practice what I learned in school. Without me realizing, I have more empathy and compassion in me, partly also because I am now a mother, which I thought is good. But, it doesn’t work when I have to make hard changes. Sometimes being compassion slows you down. You forgive other people easily when they did not submit their work on time. You tried to understand their position first before penalizing them. You compromised. As a result, you couldn’t get what you want. Is it your fault or underperforming people’s fault?

Finding the right balance between being tough and being compassionate is never easy. But like I said above, if you want to make effective transformational changes, being tough trumps compassionate. You almost need to be a dictator so that people listen to you. Not ideal but it is what it is.

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