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The Compassionate Leader


The Case for Compassion

Components of Compassion

Compassion - a Leadership Dilemma

The Cure - Practising Compassion


Compassion is crucial to leadership efficacy

'Compassion - in terms of a benevolent attitude, a predisposition to help others - lifts us out of the small-minded worries that centre on ourselves by putting a focus on others. That simple shift allows leaders a sorely needed renewal of spirit that is crucial in sustaining not only themselves but also the efficacy of their leadership.'

Dan Goleman preface to Resonant Leadership by Boyatzis & McKee


More on this topic in

 FactFile #29


Compassion – A Stress Reliever

'Research shows that positive emotions such as compassion have a decidedly constructive effect on neurological functioning, psychological well-being, physical health and personal relationships Consciously engaging emotions such as hope and compassion, counters the physiological and psychological harm done by stress.'

'Becoming a Resonant Leader'  McKee, Boyatzis & Johnston pp. 38 & 154


Come along to our Master Class on practices for becoming a more Compassionate Leader



Empathy deters Harm

'To the extent that we feel caring and connected with each other, we naturally refrain from harmful behaviours. Empathy and compassion are foundational for natural ethics and for positive social relationships. When we empathise and feel compassion towards others suffering, this stops us from doing things that would have a negative effect on them. When we feel others’ suffering as our own, we cannot bring ourselves to harm them. “ Lorne Ladner The Lost Art of Compassion p. xvi


Sights on this topic in Issue #10 CC E-News



Dissonance = Damage

'Dissonant leaders wreak havoc. They are at the mercy of volatile emotions and reactivity. They drive people too hard, for the wrong reasons, and in the wrong directions. They leave frustration, fear, and antagonism in their wake. And they are often completely unaware of the damage they have done.'

McKee & Boyatzis Resonant Leadership p.6


Compassion in Leadership...

Extracts from KeyNote Presentation November 2009

Bill Cropper, Director - The Change Forum

Leadership’ and ‘compassion’ aren’t words we commonly link together.  Most leaders are conditioned to put business before benevolence – to lead with their heads, not their hearts. The popular perception of a powerful leader is someone who’s tough, strong, decisive, hard-nosed, ultra-rational and results-driven. The reality is powerful leaders, amongst their other traits, have the conviction, confidence and courage to cultivate connectivity and compassion.

Although it’s a quality enacted around us regularly, compassion is too-often seen as a somewhat distant, altruistic ideal – an unrealistic response of the naively sentimental or kind-hearted, associated with being ‘mushy’, taking a too ‘softly-softly’ approach, detracting from a solid outcomes focus or diluting down hard decisions when we should be business-like, stern, stoic – even ruthless. Yet this is changing. Organisations are interested in a more compassionate style – in leading with feelings. This may be human kindness but it also makes practical business sense. People can’t focus and do good work if they’re distracted by strong negative emotions. It’s at the ‘feelings’ level where many performance and productivity problems lie. If you want people to take committed action and put in a superior performance, you have to connect with their feelings first – and connectivity is compassion in action.

While we convince ourselves we can’t make space for compassion and connection, that’s exactly what great leaders do make time for. Great leaders care about connecting with the people they lead. They see connectivity as the conduit for almost everything else they do - and compassion is the key. Compassionate leaders inspire people with purpose, hope, optimism and energy because they resonate, empathise and connect.

Culture’s also squarely on organisation change agendas today and how leaders lead has a lot to do with it. Driving, directive, coercive styles may move people short term, but the dissonance it ignites breeds toxic emotions like anger, anxiety or apathy and does dramatic long-term damage. Compassion and connectivity are not only telling social and emotional factors in creating vibrant work relationships. Research reveals they’re also key to maintain emotional balance, build up reserves of resilience, insulate yourself from the harmful effects of toxic emotions, relieve leadership stress and re-energise and renew yourself.


   The Case for Compassion

Let’s face it, there hasn’t been a lot of room for compassionate leadership in workplaces – but this is changing. Over the past 10 years, most organisations have arrived at the recognition that emotions do matter for good work – that leaders need high levels of Emotional Intelligence. This interest in leading with feelings has opened the way forward to taking the next step: cultivating more compassionate leadership.

This shift to a more empathetic, caring and emotionally intelligent style provokes questions such as: “What is compassion anyway? What does it take to be a compassionate leader? How does compassion fit into a practical leadership context and can you learn to be more compassionate?"

Happily, there's a fair bit of research underway in this area now, shedding light on still-emerging answers to some of these questions. Aside from definitive neurological observances, a raft of researchers in HR and the human sciences are starting to reveal that compassion is a potent attribute in a number of key leadership areas. For example, compassion:


Tunes-up our empathy, that in turn promotes more constructive, connective relationships


Counters the physiological effects of leader-stress by calming bodily reactions


Acts as an insulator to combat the harmful impacts of toxic emotions on body and mind


Opens the gate to an array of other positive feelings like optimism and hope


Is one of the keys to maintaining emotional balance and managing disruptive moods


Helps build up reserves of resilience – the bounce-back emotion to handle set-backs


Builds up well-being and has the capacity to renew or sustain the energy level of leaders

Cultivating compassion also contributes to other constructive changes in how leaders lead, relate to others, and handle the unavoidable toxicity and stress of the job. Being compassionate can help leaders emanate less disapproval and show more genuine concern  which makes them more approachable; reduced displays of toxic emotions like anger and anxiety, allows for a more emotionally balanced and calm approach; increased empathy and understanding in turn increases the chance that staff will trust and want to connect with their leaders.  Increased connectivity has a healing effect on people and an enhancing impact on the positivity of work climates and culture.

Naturally, staff don’t need much convincing about compassion. A 2000 Gallup poll of two million employees confirms the value of a more compassionate approach to leadership. It found most rate a caring boss higher than how much money they earn!

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   Components of compassion…

What makes up compassion? To answer this, we can’t just rely on recent western psychology and ignore the venerably ancient Buddhist contribution, which counts compassion amongst its four main pillars. In fact, the West has tended to focus on emotional dysfunction rather than how to cultivate positive emotions, and compassion has been the most neglected.

As Lorne Ladner points out in The Lost Art of Compassion, we’ve been taught to work with damaging emotions, but western psychology has not offered "even one clear, practical, well-researched method for people to use to develop compassion."

While east and west have differences in how we understand compassion, there’s commonality on some of its essential components. For example:


1. Respect and Caring: Resonant Leadership authors Boyatzis and McKee claim compassion “involves caring, curiosity, respect and real empathy" toward others, which is echoed by The Dalai Lama, who defines it as “a mental attitude, associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility and respect”.


2. Empathy: In Buddhism, compassion is a deep understanding of the emotional state of another (which sounds like the western idea of empathy). It leads us to feel empathy. A slight reversal in western thought, where empathy is seen as what enables us to connect with others, which can lead us to feel compassionate.


3. Selfless and Unconditional: both traditions see these important conditions for compassion – to put others' needs before yours and not ‘favour-trade’, expect something in return or give or withhold compassion depending on whether we see someone as friend or foe. As Boyatzis and McKee say: “Compassion does not assume or expect reciprocity or an equal exchange. Compassion means giving selflessly”.


4. Committed Action: “Compassion is empathy and caring in action – a willingness to act on those feelings” say Boyatzis and McKee. The Dalai Lama resonates: “True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment characterised by action”.


5. Benefitting Others: In Buddhism, compassionate acts alleviate suffering. In the west, we speak of being benevolent without any thought of gain.

Feeling genuine compassion can be difficult. It’s easier when the relationship with the other person is filled with positive emotions – harder when such things are absent or even over-ridden by envy, resentment, dislike and indifference. Compassion isn’t a singular thing. We think there are several levels or stages. [Read more in FactFile-29 >>>]

Acting compassionately is essential, but there’s one more thing. Compassion’s a mental state we need to find firstly inside us – our intentions for being compassionate must be clear. We can do kind things or compassionate acts with good consequences, for example, but delving deeper, why are we doing this?

“Because compassion is a state of mind or of heart, it cannot be measured by a person’s outwards behaviours (which) may appear benevolent, but the motivations are self-centred desire, fear, or habit rather than a genuine feeling of compassion.” Lorne Ladner Lost Art of Compassion pp.13-14

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   Compassion: a leadership dilemma...

The core of compassion is heartfelt connection in situations where others are suffering and taking action when possible, to help relieve it. Through how they are and what they do, compassionate leaders create emotionally healthy and positively energised workplaces. They genuinely care for others’ well-being and are attentive to their needs, which they put before their own. They are aware of the impact their feelings have on others.  They connect through empathy to keep them in touch and in tune with what other people think and feel.  And they use positive emotions to inspire and dissipate toxic emotions that are dissonant and demoralising.

The dilemma is that while compassionate leaders work to relieve pain, leaders also create pain as an inevitable side effect of leading, as Peter Frost points out in Toxic Emotions at Work:

"All leaders create pain; it goes with the territory. In addition to sometimes providing inspiration and excitement, leadership is about pushing limits, setting new directions, and taking decisions that are not necessarily popular with one's followers…. and they often feel angry, disillusioned, frustrated or afraid. Really good leaders understand these dynamics and take steps to mitigate, minimize or mop up the pain they create” Handling the hurt: A critical skill for leaders By Peter J. Frost Reprint # 9B04TA07 IVEY MANAGEMENT SERVICES Jan/Feb 2004

Toxic emotions – generated by you or picked up from others, leave a residual in the body that affects us badly, unless we have skills to learn to let them go. They slowly penetrate our defences. Bursts of adrenaline wear down our immune system resulting in physical and mental ill-health.


The stress of leading - handling constant crises, hard decisions, always looking out for others, is draining. Reserves of resonance, empathy and connectivity dry up and even once-resonant leaders slip into dissonance.


They become burnt out, dispirited, scratchy, abrasive and abrupt. “And, because our emotions are contagious, dissonance spreads quickly to those around us and eventually permeates our organisations,” observe Boyatzis and McKee.

As we get busier and more stressed, we begin to lose ‘groundedness’ – we’re thrown off-balance; focus, energy and equilibrium wane. We become distant and lose our sense of connection that’s essential for compassion. We focus even more on us – how tired, behind-the-game and demanded-of we are – which disconnects us more. Prolonged periods of dissonance like this promote toxic emotions and behaviour that easily spread to infect the people you lead.

   The Cure of practising Compassion

To counter these toxic effects leaders need to cultivate habits of mind and behaviour that dilute or relieve them. To return to resonance, we must renew ourselves through a conscious process of mental and physical practices to inspire, re-energise and counter these stress-effects.

“Research shows that positive emotions such as compassion have a decidedly constructive effect on neurological functioning, psychological well-being, physical health and personal relationships Consciously engaging emotions such as hope and compassion, counters the physiological and psychological harm done by stress.” McKee, Boyatzis & Johnston Becoming a Resonant Leader p.38

Amongst the keys to renewal are practices for cultivating empathy, mindfulness, hope and compassion. Adopting a more compassionate leadership style can strengthen relationships and create a more supportive, less stressful work climate. But it can only happen if we dare to be different – to open ourselves up to new ways of thinking and being in how we go about our leadership and our life.


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