5-second summary
  • Leading with compassion can be challenging because managers feel pressure to build a supportive team culture while delivering on challenging business goals – but there are major benefits to this leadership style.
  • Compassionate leadership is especially effective when combined with wisdom – and both take a lot of patience, practice, and perspective to master.
  • Learn the habits of compassionate leadership and try these exercises to put what you’ve learned into practice.

Most leaders are forced to walk a thin line: innovate abundantly, but keep us in the black. Inspire your people to do good work, but hold them accountable for their performance. Foster a culture that attracts talent, but don’t give an inch when it comes to productivity. 

Even those who lead with the best of intentions often struggle to strike a balance between what’s good for the business and what’s good for their people. This dichotomy makes it difficult to be both an effective leader and a compassionate leader. 

It’s not that power makes people want to be less empathetic; it’s that taking on greater responsibilities and pressure can rewire our brains and, through no fault of our own, force us to stop caring about other people as much as we used to. But it does not have to be this way.

Rasmus Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter, and Louise Chester for HBR

But leaders who put in the work to prioritize the well-being of their teams and lead with compassion will be rewarded where it matters: with better job satisfaction, better relationships with their teammates, and better business outcomes. 

What is compassionate leadership?

The quiet and powerful advantage of mindful leadership

Simply put, compassionate leadership focuses on achieving business outcomes while prioritizing the well-being of the entire team. 

As the name implies, it’s rooted in the practice of compassion. And while that word is easily confused with similar terms like “sympathy” and “empathy,” there’s an important distinction: compassion requires action. 

Compassionate Leaders Circle – one of the leading resources in the world of compassionate leadership – highlights the simple difference between sympathy, empathy, and compassion:

  • Sympathy: Thoughts
  • Empathy: Thoughts and feelings
  • Compassion: Thoughts, feelings, and actions

So, a compassionate leader doesn’t just recognize their team’s experiences and emotions, but also makes decisions with those realities in mind, even if it means making a difficult choice. Those are all captured in the four behaviors of compassionate leadership:

  1. Attending: Paying attention to other people and noticing their emotions
  2. Understanding: Determining the root cause of those emotions
  3. Empathizing: Attempting to feel those same emotions (essentially, putting yourself in that person’s shoes)
  4. Helping or serving: Taking action to effectively address what is causing those emotions (or help the person find other ways to cope)

In this way, compassionate leaders can certainly act as a source of support and inspiration for individuals. However, a compassionate leader’s allegiance is ultimately to the well-being of the team as a whole.  

What are the 7 C’s of compassionate leadership?

Compassionate leaders are…well, compassionate. That’s obvious enough. However, there are a few other important qualities of compassionate leaders. Laurel Donnellan, the Founder and CEO of Compassionate Leaders Circle, developed seven attributes to dig deeper into what makes a compassionate leader. To embody this style, a leader needs to be:

  1. Compassionate
  2. Confident
  3. Collaborative
  4. Contemplative
  5. Civil
  6. Curious
  7. Courageous

What are the benefits of compassionate leadership?

Compassionate leadership isn’t all “heart over head.” The approach has several benefits for both leaders and their teams.

Compassionate leaders are happier at work 

While compassionate leadership might seem like it’s strictly focused on benefiting your direct reports, it’s just as big of a positive for you as the leader. 

According to Compassionate Leadership, leaders who consider themselves highly compassionate are 66% less stressed than their less-compassionate colleagues, 200% less likely to quit, and 14% more effective. 

Compassionate leaders have happier teams.

Predictably, employees stand to gain a lot from more compassionate leaders. Neuroimaging research shows that people’s brains respond more positively to leaders who demonstrate compassion. 

That translates to lower employee emotional exhaustion, lower absenteeism, and higher employee happiness. In fact, an impressive 90% of U.S. workers say that empathetic leadership improves their job satisfaction. 

Compassion is good for the bottom line 

More engaged leaders and well-supported employees have a direct and positive impact on the business’s bottom line. In one study, when compassion was deliberately incorporated into the values of a business unit (as determined by its members), those units enjoyed more financial success and executives perceived them as more effective.

Compassionate leadership improves employee retention too, which saves even more money on costly turnover. 

Is compassion on its own enough?

A study of 5,000 companies across 100 countries conducted by The Potential Project reveals that compassion is important, but it isn’t everything. Leaders who combine compassion with wisdom see even greater success, to the tune of 20% higher performance and 65% lower burnout on their teams.

The matrix below shows the benefits and potential pitfalls of going all-in on compassion (where you risk allowing empathy to get in the way of making difficult decisions) or wisdom (where you risk prioritizing results over your team’s best interests).

Source: Compassionate Leadership

That’s something to keep in mind as you learn to channel your compassion – it’s smart to develop your sense of wisdom at the same time. 

Wisdom is to see reality clearly and act appropriately. It is the foresightedness that comes with experience, and it helps us to deal with hard things upfront rather than beating around the bush. To have wisdom means to have good judgment in how to lead others and how to run business in a purposeful, sustainable way.

Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, Compassionate Leadership

How to be a compassionate leader: 6 ways to balance your head and your heart

Here’s some even more good news: you can learn how to be more compassionate. Research shows that you can train your brain to cultivate more compassion for others. How? Here are six tips to become a more compassionate leader. 

1. Practice self-compassion

Dr. Kristin Neff, widely recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on self-compassion, says, “Having compassion for yourself means you honor and accept your humanness.” When a leader takes the time to get in tune with their struggles and offer themselves compassion – rather than getting stuck in an endless loop of self-criticism – they’re more likely to have compassion to offer to others in the workplace. 

Practice opportunity: Try one of Dr. Neff’s guided self-compassion exercises each week and share your favorites with your team. 

2. Learn to be present

Offering compassion means you need to fully tune in to how someone is doing. You can’t do that if your mind is elsewhere. Compassionate leadership requires you to be fully present and in touch with your surroundings, so minimize your distractions and take a mindful approach to interactions with your team. 

Mindful leadership is a leadership style in which managers learn how to consciously cultivate their ability to be present, open-minded, and compassionate when interacting with their team members – and they show the same care and consideration to themselves.

Practice opportunity: Choose a few meetings this week (your one-on-one check-ins are a great place to start) to practice mindful interactions. Experiment with how long you’re able to channel that mindfulness. You’ll likely find you’re able to grow your “presence muscles” and stamina as time goes by. 

3. Master the art of active listening

Similarly to staying present, active listening – meaning listening to another person with the intent of hearing, comprehending, and retaining what they say – is crucial for compassionate leadership. Rather than just waiting for your turn to talk or leaping to judgment of what your conversation partner is saying, listen deeply to both the words being said and the energy and emotion of the person speaking.

Practice opportunity: Peruse the many active listening exercises available online. Similar to mindfulness, you’ll probably notice that your “endurance” for active listening will strengthen as you practice. 

4. Know your triggers

We all have personal triggers, especially in the context of having difficult conversations. Leaders in particular can benefit from a familiarity with their triggers. What kinds of interactions get your hackles up? What sorts of behaviors throw you off your leadership game? Maybe you hate gossip or can’t stand being interrupted. Take note of these idiosyncrasies—recognizing them is half the battle.

Practice opportunity: Write down a list of your triggers and what happens when you encounter them. Ask yourself, “When I experience this next time, how do I want to respond?” Visualize this “ideal you” showing up in the situation differently.

5. Go beyond empathy and step into action

Remember that compassionate leadership doesn’t just require that you tune into the feelings of another person—you need to do something with that knowledge. Don’t be afraid to ask, “What do you need from me?” or “How can I best support you in this situation?”  Expressing a genuine willingness to help signals that you truly care and that you will mobilize when necessary. 

Practice opportunity: The next time you notice a peer or a team member doesn’t quite seem like themselves, set up a check-in to see how the person is doing (only if they’re willing to share). Then demonstrate your care by explicitly offering your support and help.

6. Demonstrate courage

Being a compassionate leader doesn’t mean avoiding the tough stuff. As leadership expert, Rasmus Hougaard, explains, compassionate leadership is knowing “how to do hard things in a human way.” So, lean into difficult moments with courage, candor, and care. Honor the discomfort but step forward anyway to say what needs to be said in a kind, value-driven way. 

Practice opportunity: Notice a situation where you might be hesitating to share candid feedback or have a challenging discussion. Instead of keeping quiet, be bold and experiment with courage by choosing to share something you are normally uncomfortable talking about.

Compassionate leadership: the best of both worlds