Compassionate Leaders: Everything you need to know

Compassionate Leaders: Everything you need to know

With the current COVID 19 pandemic, it has not forced the way people work to change but has also forced leaders to re-evaluate how they lead. This pandemic has made leader realise the need to be compassionate leaders, leaders that make a difference in people’s lives. According to McKinsey & Co, numerous studies show that in a business-as-usual environment, compassionate leaders perform better and foster more loyalty and engagement by their teams. During such a pandemic like COVID 19 compassion is key, especially in leadership. The driving forces of exceptional leadership are desire, self-awareness, and, most important, compassion. Compassionate leaders act intentionally to create a positive impact on the world as a whole.


What is Compassionate Leadership?

Compassionate Leadership has emerged from the growing field of mindfulness, originally pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn as a means of reducing stress. The fact that compassion and leadership are rarely positively correlated is perhaps the very reason it’s resonating so widely. According to West & Bailey (2019), ‘Compassionate leadership in practice means leaders listening with fascination to those they lead, arriving at a shared (rather than imposed) understanding of the challenges they face, empathizing with and caring for them, and then taking action to help or support them.’ Compassionate leadership means creating the conditions – through consistently listening, understanding, empathizing, and helping – to make it possible to have tough performance management and tough conversations when needed.

Marc Lesser, co-founder and former CEO of SIYLI, breaks compassion down into three core domains



    Empathy: Feeling as somebody else is feeling (however uncomfortable)

2.      Cognitive: Seeking to understand what somebody else is thinking and why they came to hold their opinion (requiring mindful listening)

3.      Motivation: Trying to take care of the concerns of others and reduce their suffering


Dr. Ellen Langer, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, “In more than 30 years of research, we’ve found that increasing mindfulness increases charisma and productivity, decreases burnout and accidents, and increases creativity, memory, attention, positive affect, health, and even longevity. When mindful we can take advantage of opportunities and avert the dangers that don’t yet exist. This is true for the leader and the led.” By cultivating a more human-centered and compassionate approach to leadership it fuels a more courageous leader. The very sort needed in today's increasingly anxious, uncertain, and risk-averse environment.


Why is Compassionate Leadership essential?

Being a compassionate leader is a requirement of modern leaders who want to direct their people and organizations to sustainable success and a brighter future. There might have been a time when compassion was viewed as a weakness. Those days are long gone. Today, leaders are expected to treat their people with a greater sense of caring and humanity and to respect the unique attributes and qualities each person brings to the team and organization.

According to Joanne Trotta, Managing Partner & FounderLeadersEdge Inc., Compassionate leaders:

  • Are more engaging, and can create higher levels of overall employee engagement
  • Build robust, trusting relationships at all levels
  • Are viewed as being strong
  • Inspire greater collaboration within organizations
  • Contribute to lower rates of employee turnover
  • Inspire their people to feel more connected to one another
  • Create environments where employees feel a greater sense of commitment to their organizations

Building a culture of compassion and engagement is a business imperative with studies demonstrating that companies with engaged employees perform 200 percent better than those without. It’s important to note that compassionate leadership is all about giving people what they need and not necessarily what they want. There is a subtle and crucial difference between practicing compassion and enabling bad behavior. Sometimes you will need to give constructive criticism or relate bad news, for example. You may think that the compassionate thing to do would be to avoid these interactions altogether or tell a person what you think they want to hear. This only enables ongoing inappropriate behavior and is the opposite of compassion (Trotta, 2014).


Characteristics of Compassionate Leaders

Sherrie Campbell (Psychologist, Author, Speaker) highlights the following 7 traits as being common in Compassionate Leaders:

  1. Learning- Compassionate leaders understand that no matter how great they think they are, they are still surrounded by other intelligent people who are full of ideas that can enhance their skills and knowledge to lead even more effectively. When leaders operate as if they know everything, they harden themselves to new ideas by stubbornly assuming they have nothing more to learn to be effective in their role. There is no compassion in that mindset. Compassionate leaders possess the modesty to continually seek feedback under the belief system they can only grow their team to the extent they grow themselves.


  1. Removing barriers- Compassionate leaders immerse themselves in the daily grind with their team, helping them face and solve problems harming productivity or hindering reciprocal communication when closing deals. Removing barriers is twofold. Leaders have to understand the internal emotional patterns of each team member, which patterns hold them back and which promotes them into success. Leaders need to help team members work through their defeatist thoughts and encourage new patterns of thinking to help them be more successful going forward.


  1. Impact- Compassionate leaders live to help others and make no room for selfishness on the teams they lead. These leaders live with an attitude of abundance and prefer to look at what team members need rather than at what team members aren’t doing. Compassionate leaders make no room for pessimism. They view challenges with interest rather than dread. This attitude sets the tone for team members and keeps morale high. The compassionate leader seeks to understand people, knowing that understanding is the doorway into having the greatest impact on guiding others.


  1. Standards- Compassionate leaders hold themselves and their ethics to high standards. These leaders are ethical and expect every one of their team members to be the same. Ethics are the building blocks upon which success of any kind is based. These types of leaders strive for nothing less than excellence. Some team members may not be used to an environment where excellence is expected of them. To inspire them, compassionate leaders show high levels of integrity in their daily actions. This helps to gain the trust and confidence of team members who are new or unsure.


  1. Influence- Compassionate leaders seek to influence, not authority. They don’t demand, they encourage. They lead with hope. They guide, acknowledge, and support team members to combine their efforts, skills, talents, insights, passion, enthusiasm, and commitment to work together for the greater good. Compassionate leaders use the power of their role to lead others into the discovery of their unique power. They view the growth and development of the people they lead and the communities they serve as the great makers of their success.


  1. Passion- Compassionate leaders understand that people who are driven want to be part of something meaningful and influential. These leaders hold a deep concern for how their team members feel and what they’re getting out of their work experience. They do all they can to inspire team members to give nothing less than their best. These types of leaders are powerful because they understand that success comes to those who fully dedicate themselves to a cause. Compassionate leaders know there is nothing more powerful than a person who is driven from their heart.


  1. Team- Compassionate leaders hold the wisdom that great things in life or business are never accomplished by one person. Excellence is a group effort, whether that be a team, a company, a society, or an entire civilization. For teams to succeed, they need leaders who support and guide them to stay focused, especially when the stakes are high.


Compassionate leaders bring their team members together to work as a functional unit. They lay the groundwork for their team to have the best chance of success, and then take great joy in sitting back and watching team members shine individually and collectively. These leaders have no problem taking the lead when the team is in danger and no problem stepping to the side to allow their team to experience the successes they have accomplished on their own.

Furthermore Christoph Niewerth (Chief Operating Officer of Hays Recruiting Experts Worldwide) the following are also traits of Compassionate leaders:

  1. Self-awareness and self-compassion- In the words of LinkedIn’s CEO, Jeff Weiner, you need to “be a spectator to your thoughts, especially when you become emotional.” A compassionate leader is one that is aware of their strengths and weaknesses (and invites feedback on them) and how they are perceived by others. Compassionate leaders also have compassion for themselves, which is an important element.


  1. The ability to put themselves in the shoes of others- Such leaders are also able to put themselves in the shoes of the people that they lead, which enables them to better understand the impact of their actions and behaviours on their team, and thus do what they can to help alleviate any issues for the good of the team and the wider organization. Compassionate leaders also know that they’re more likely to get better results from individual team members if they can understand what truly drives each of them to achieve – instead of merely ruling with threats or fear, or even giving them a financial incentive (a compassionate leader realizes that while these solutions may seem superficially attractive, they often only bring short-lived boosts in employee performance).


  1. They see themselves as the conductor of an orchestra- Compassionate leaders understand that different people do things differently – and that there isn’t just one way to do something well. They also know that they don’t know everything, which opens doors to creativity and innovative thinking within their teams. Compassionate leaders, don’t adopt a ‘my way or the highway’ mentality. Instead, they give every member of their team the support that they require to do their work in a way that plays to their strengths. So, compassionate leaders tend to think of themselves as the conductor of the orchestra, working to help each member of their team thrive, and overcome any challenges they face.


Examples of Compassionate Leaders

One common and infamous example of Compassionate leadership is, Mother Theresa. Mother Teresa is an excellent example of a leader who took it upon herself to help make a difference in the world through spreading compassion. She is Noble Peace Prize-winning humanitarian Mother Teresa and has been declared an official saint for her work helping people living in poverty. At the time of her death, Mother Teresa's charity had over 1 million volunteers in 123 countries helping people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy, tuberculosis, hungry children, poor families, orphanages, and schools. Mother Teresa was an inspiring, rare, and unique individual whose higher purpose was to care for the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged around the world. She was able to look beyond religion, caste, the color of one’s skin, or country of origin to help the poorest of the poor.

Another example of a compassionate leader, in our Zimbabwean context, is Strive Masiyiwa and his wife. This duo is involved in another community-based work through their foundation HigherLife Foundation. They too take the time to give back to the less privileged, whilst sharing compassion as denoted by their Christian principles.

Other famous compassionate leaders that we may know are:

  • The late Nelson Mandela
  • Pope Francis
  • Bill Gates
  • Barack Obama

Just to name a few.

Leaders can use social media to send a message to their online community that demonstrates their commitment to diversity, compassion, and inclusion. In inclusive culture customers and employees know that, irrespective of gender, race, religion, class, country of origin, sexual orientation, and physical ability you are valued as an individual.

Compassionate leaders can use social media to help build trust with their organizations by demonstrating kindness and making a difference. Everything leaders do to help others big or small matters. It is critical for leaders today to find ways to share experiences and happiness that bring a smile to someone’s face while making a difference.


Tatenda Sayenda-Havire is a Consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, a management and human resources consulting firm. Phone +263 (242) 481946-48/481950 or email: or visit our website at


Tatenda Sayenda
This article was written by Tatenda a Guest at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd

Related Articles


Sign up now to get updated on latest posts and relevant career opportunities