What is Compassionate Leadership?

6 Apr 2023 | News

Leadership has evolved dramatically over the years, from the early days of the great man theory and the autocratic styles to the modern-day servant leadership theory and a more egalitarian style of leadership.

Compassionate leader and her team


The common traits of leadership have evolved over this time too and taking into account that leadership is observed through the eye of the follower, these headline traits of leadership are fairly consistent. Words like strong, charismatic, visionary, empathetic, integrity, communicator, inspiring, to name but a few all come into mind straight away.

However, one of the most crucial traits for modern leadership is compassion.

Gender & Compassionate Leadership

For some, compassion brings to mind a style of leadership that may be perceived as soft or weak, for some compassionate leadership has been more associated as a feminine trait. We know, men can display feminine traits, and women can display masculine traits. This is equally true with culture. For example, Russia is a feminine country in terms of Hofstede’s analysis of Russian culture.

Compassionate Leadership, the key to success

Compassionate leadership is certainly not soft and weak, however, it is a trait more associated with women in leadership than men, though not exclusively. As mentioned, in the modern world, with compassion becoming a more important trait, those leaders who will be successful will be the women and men who can display genuine compassion for their followers

Compassion is defined as “Suffering together with another, participation in suffering; fellow-feeling, sympathy” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Compassion, though related, is not the same as empathy or altruism. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless behavior often prompted by feelings of compassion. Interestingly some research has shown that compassion is linked to our deep evolutionary makeup.

Modern Leadership & Compassion

What does compassion mean for modern leadership? Firstly, the idea of “suffering together with another”, how many times has history shown us that leaders talk the talk but do not walk the walk. How many global leaders do we see living in lavish palaces, yet their people suffer in abject poverty?. In business, how many leaders pay themselves massive salaries and bonuses yet inflict cuts on their staff? It’s the old “one rule for you, one rule for me”. As societies become more egalitarian, more educated, and the ability to communicate on a global scale becomes easier every day through social media, the reality is we are no longer tolerant of this old-school manner of leadership.

We need our societies to be fairer, we need our workplaces to be fairer. We see visceral reactions to corruption and what we deem to be unfairness in society or the workplace. Why is this? Because it lacks compassion, it says we are not in this together, we are better than you and we don’t care, and in our modern society we are no longer willing to accept this.

Compassionate Leadership & Profits

The leaders that succeed in the future will be the ones that show genuine compassion. Research has shown that CEOs who display low levels of narcissism end up running more profitable companies.CEO’s who display high levels of compassion end up running more profitable companies. Why? Employees are more motivated. However, compassionate leadership is tough, very tough. It is easy to take a route where nobody suffers in the short term but in the long term, the consequences of not making the hard decision are way worse. How many times have we seen leaders take the easy option, people are delighted because they don’t feel initial pain, but in the long term, they suffer?

Tough Love

Real leadership makes these hard decisions, listens to people, explains why these decisions need to be made and stay in the trenches with those who are suffering. In the world of business, this might be a restructuring of the business where you know there will have to be job cuts, but that in the long term it will save the company and far more jobs than you will lose in the short term. A decision like this is not going to be popular in the short term, you will come under pressure not to go through with it by those affected and their colleagues. That’s what modern leadership is and the sooner countries and companies start developing that trait and living it, the better we will be for it.

The days of thinking CEOs are these tough-talking ball breakers is over, the stereotype is redundant, the kind and considerate leader who suffers with their people is the only way to be.

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