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Are you a compassionate leader?

Being a leader doesn't come with a manual, but there are traits that we probably all presume a good leader will have, things like courage, integrity, vision, passion.


How about compassion?

Perhaps not the first attribute that springs to mind. But in a world that’s increasingly tough, where disruptions are seemingly relentless, and challenges come thick and fast, compassion is a vital part of any successful leader’s armoury.

Rethinking leadership

Over the past decade the demands on leaders have changed – shifts that we saw accelerate rapidly due to the pandemic. Challenges around hybrid and remote working, mental health, diversity and inclusion, and sustainability have gone from occasional conversations to everyday considerations.

People want to trust and invest in their leaders, they want to be supported and empowered, and they want those at the top to be principled and authentic.

The importance of compassion

This is where compassion comes in. Researchers define compassion as an emotional response to another’s struggles and having an authentic desire to help. It’s different to empathy which falls short of taking real action.

So what is compassionate leadership?

To be a compassionate leader is to listen, understand, and support people, making them feel respected and valued and enabling them to do their best.

Compassionate Leadership: Sustaining Wisdom, Humanity and Presence in Health and Social Care by Michael A West offers incredible insight into the impact compassion can have.

While its roots are in the leadership and cultures of health and social care teams, the evidence-based approach and practical resources and questions can be applied to any sector.

As West states, compassionate leaders ‘empathise with their colleagues and seek to understand the challenges they face… supporting others to cope with and respond successfully to work challenges… enabling those they lead to be effective and thrive in work.’

Getting wise and bringing courage

Becoming a compassionate leader starts with wisdom:

  • Take the time to understand what motivates the people in your team and how you can support them to meet priorities you agree together.
  • Show up for the hard decisions and be open and transparent with feedback – even if it’s uncomfortable.
  • Realise that if you put off the hard things, they just become harder.

Compassion might in the past have been (unwisely) dismissed as a ‘soft’ skill, something that isn’t compatible with growth and success. But it’s not about pleasing people, the compassionate thing is often taking the tough decision, directly addressing poor behaviour or performance, and making changes that will deliver better outcomes for the wider team.

The power of compassion

There’s hard evidence that leading with compassion leads to less burnout, commitment to the organisation, increased performance and engagement, and job satisfaction. It creates psychologically safe environments where innovation and learning can thrive.

Compassion in leadership creates stronger connections between people, improves collaboration, raises levels of trust, and enhances loyalty. Studies have found that compassionate leaders are perceived as stronger and more competent that their traditional command and control counterparts.

So it’s time to put ‘command and control’ leadership firmly to one side and, as Simon Sinek puts it, focus less on being ‘in charge’ and more on taking care of those who are in your charge.

For a deeper dive into compassionate leadership this reading list has 12 great books to help.