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Compassionate Leadership: Taking Care of People as Humans First, and Employees Second

Published on May 18, 2020

What is compassionate leadership?

According to Harvard Business Review, compassion is the intent to contribute to the happiness and well-being of others. A compassionate leader has a genuine interest in giving people what they need – not just the minimum so that they will perform and increase profits, but what they will thrive. Along with having a vision for the long-term compassionate leadership also requires wisdom about leading for the greater good.

Compassionate leadership is often described as having three core areas:

  1. Empathy: Understanding how someone else is feeling, even if it is uncomfortable.
  2. Cognitive: Mindfully listening to others and seeking to identify what they are thinking and why.
  3. Motivation: Taking care of the concerns of others and trying to reduce their suffering.

Compassionate leadership is a skill that can be strengthened over time. Along with encouraging people throughout your organization to develop good compassionate leadership skills, also assess your core leadership team to hold everyone, including yourself, accountable to practicing compassionate leadership.

The importance of communication

Clear, direct, transparent communication is a key tool for the compassionate leader, especially during uncertain times.

One of the biggest causes of anxiety and stress is the unknown. People don’t know how a major change or crisis will affect them personally or professionally, how long it will last, or how it will continue to impact the economy and the future of their role and organization. Thoughtful communication can abate some of this uncertainty. Further, clear availability is helpful. For example, during pandemic lockdowns, some leaders provided regular blocks in their calendar for calls regarding issues associated with wider pandemic-related changes.

Having a compassionate and collaborative approach to communication can help both employees and leaders. Leaders may sometimes feel isolated and solely responsible for the future of the organization. But by working collaboratively with your teams, promoting transparency, and empowering everyone to bring their ideas and diverse experiences to the table, your organization will become more strategically agile, resilient, and vibrant. Compassionate leadership and collaboration will be create a healthy culture of shared ownership, respect, and responsibility throughout the organization

Improving your emotional intelligence

Leaders have a critical role in helping their employees navigate the turbulence of an ever-changing world. Overall emotional intelligence (EI) will be at the forefront of this growth, of which compassion is a core component. Take this simple emotional intelligence test from HBR to get a sense of where you’re at and what you might want to focus on improving.

According to Daniel Goleman, there are five fundamental features of emotional intelligence:

  1. Self-awareness – recognizing your own emotions
  2. Self-regulation – managing your emotions and impulses
  3. Empathy – identifying and understanding others’ emotions
  4. Motivation – self-motivating rather than relying on external rewards (money, status)
  5. Social Skill – managing relationships in a way that benefits the organization (build rapport and trust)

At the core of EI is self-awareness and self-compassion, but it is also the area that leaders tend to spend the least amount of time on. A certain level of self-awareness and self-compassion is needed to help leaders have the mental and physical energy to actively listen, be present, and fully support others. We cannot care for others without first understanding and being healthy ourselves. In addition, many people are looking to their leaders to set an example of self-compassion and self-care. They may feel guilty if they don’t feel they have “permission” to take a break, go for a walk, and focus on their own mental health. If leaders do not remember to lead by example by practicing and normalizing self-compassion and self-care, there may an unintended negative ripple effect throughout your organization.

To develop your self-awareness and self-compassion, it’s important to ask yourself questions such as What can I do to cope and look after myself now? We’re humans – we’re not perfect and we feel emotions intensely. Especially in times like this, it’s important to think positively and not be too hard on yourself. Here is an example of how to think in a self-compassionate way:  It’s okay to be stressed or anxious. This is a difficult situation for everyone. It’s okay if I can’t be as focused or productive as normal. I’m doing my best. It’s okay to take a break and get fresh air to help clear my head.


Key steps to supporting your teams as people first and employees second:

  1. Actively listen to your teams, give them opportunities to share how they’re feeling in general and not just about work.
  2. Involve your team in the hard discussions, keep them up-to-date on how COVID-19 is impacting the organization, and engage them in coming up with potential solutions.
  3. Communicate clearly, transparently, and often.
  4. Play to your strengths and pay attention to areas of emotional intelligence with room for improvement.
  5. Develop self-compassion and lead by example to help your team do the same.


Gillian Harper
Guest Author

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