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 modern-day 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 individual 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 the business outcomes they’re responsible for and the reports who depend on their leadership. This dichotomy makes it difficult to translate a genuine desire to be compassionate into an effective approach to management.

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

The leader’s quest for compassion may be more difficult than ever, given the ever-present volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of the market, plus the toll COVID has taken on the workforce. People in the workplace are struggling now more than ever, and showing compassion while pushing for results and making tough business decisions takes the right mindset and skill set – and a whole lot of practice. 

But leaders who put in the work, prioritizing the well-being of their teams and leading with compassion, will be rewarded with better job satisfaction, better relationships with their teammates, and better business outcomes. Add in a healthy dose of wisdom – good judgment rooted in foresightedness – to achieve that coveted balance between getting things done and leading with humanity.

What is compassionate leadership?

The quiet and powerful advantage of mindful leadership

Simply put, compassion comprises empathy (the ability to understand and experience others’ emotions) and an intention to benefit others. While empathy is “to feel with someone,” compassion is “to be there to help.” 

Compassionate leadership begins with a willingness to see and feel what your colleagues might see and feel, and to act on those insights with their best interest in mind – even if it means making a difficult choice. So, compassionate leaders can certainly act as a source of support and inspiration for individuals, but ultimately, a compassionate leader’s allegiance is to the well-being of their team as a whole.

What are the benefits of compassionate leadership?

Compassionate leadership has been shown to have a number of benefits, both for leaders and their teams.

Compassionate leaders are happier at work 

Of course, while some people in positions of authority relish in maintaining a formidable reputation, most want to be perceived as benevolent, inspiring leaders. In that regard, leading with compassion can go far in fostering goodwill between managers and employees – a powerful benefit in itself.

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. 

Compassion is good for the 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.

Leading with compassion also tends to foster a culture of caring within an organization. When employees see their leaders modeling compassionate behavior, they are more likely to treat others with compassion. A supportive work environment can, in turn, increase employee retention rates, which saves businesses money on turnover costs.

In the best-case scenario, compassionate leadership can also cultivate creativity and innovation; employees are more likely to share out-of-the-box ideas when they feel understood and supported by their leaders. 

Is compassion even enough?

A recent study of 5,000 companies across 100 countries conducted by The Potential Project reveals that, while compassion in leaders yields positive outcomes, those who combine it 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

Leaders who are learning to channel their compassion, then, would do well to develop their sense of wisdom, too, in order to balance their responsibilities to the business with their commitment to the well-being of their team. 

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

6 ways to become a more compassionate leader

Here are six ways you can develop the skills and mindset to become a wise and compassionate leader: 

1. Be self-compassionate

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 own struggles and offer themselves compassion – rather than getting stuck in an endless mental loop of self-criticism – they are 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

Tuning in to how someone is doing – and poising ourselves to offer compassion – requires us to be fully present and in touch with our surroundings. With so many distractions competing for our attention and brainspace, leaders can benefit from a mindful approach to interactions with their 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 – I would recommend starting with one-on-one check-ins – where you will practice interacting mindfully with your colleague. 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

Active listening can be summed up as listening to another person with the intent of hearing them, understanding their message, and retaining what they say. 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. Being curious about others’ perspective helps you collaborate and innovate with your team, even in difficult situations.

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 personal triggers – especially when it comes to interacting with direct reports. 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

So you’re tuning into the feelings of another person and sensing the emotions they’re experiencing – don’t stop there! Go a step further and take action by offering your support. Don’t be afraid to ask, “What do you need from me? 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 in a practical way if 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

Rather than avoiding difficult feedback or shying away from issues that require tough conversations and decisions, lean into those 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.

Not sure where to start? Take this compassionate leader assessment from The Potential Project to get a sense of your strengths as a compassionate leader and areas where you could improve.

Compassionate leadership: the best of both worlds