Compassionate Leadership: How to Balance the Head and Heart

You’re smart, agile, and an excellent strategist. You can see the big picture and are a visionary who is also decisive. These are all terrific leadership qualities but, in my opinion, these attributes, and others like them, only get you halfway to your goal of becoming an outstanding leader.

To explain, great leadership abilities — intelligence, vision, decisiveness and others — come from the head. They allow leaders to drive their people to perform at a high level, increase profits, and make an organization look good on paper.

As a leader, it’s likely that you already excel when it comes to the qualities and attributes that come from the head. If you really want to improve your leadership abilities and take your performance to the next level, it’s time to focus on the types of leadership qualities that come from the heart. Attributes like emotional intelligence (EQ), self-awareness and mindfulness are essential to excellent, holistic leadership, and so is compassion.

What Is Compassionate Leadership?

Compassion can be defined as a willingness and desire to be kind to others. It means being thoughtful and aware of what others’ lives and experiences are like. It is the opposite of indifference or cruelty, and it is one of the essential qualities that determine, quite frankly, whether one is a decent human being. It is related to the qualities of sympathy and empathy, but at its root, it describes a deeper sense of understanding. In fact, the word’s origin means to suffer with. This suggests that compassion means more than seeing others as separate entities. It means seeing them as a part of yourself and relating to what they are experiencing at a much deeper level.

Compassionate leadership recognizes that every team member is not only an important individual, but also an essential thread in the fabric of an entire organization. Compassionate leaders strive to enhance the happiness and wellbeing of their people by supporting them and giving them what they need to excel. Compassionate leadership is not focused on the short term or instant gratification but rather on what’s best for the individual, the team, the organization and considers other factors that may influence or impact the situation at hand.  

Why Is Compassionate Leadership Essential?

Compassionate leadership is more than just a feel-good add on to your tool belt of skills. It’s a requirement of modern leaders who want to navigate their people and their organizations to sustainable success and a brighter future. There may have been a time when compassion would have been viewed as weakness, but 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. 

Compassionate leaders:

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

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, but crucial difference between practicing compassion and enabling bad behavior. Sometimes you will need to give constructive criticism or relate some 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 bad or inappropriate behavior and is the opposite of compassion.

Being compassionate means taking the longer-term view and doing what’s best for everyone. Therefore, the better thing to do is to respectfully and firmly offer your criticism or break the bad news in a manner that’s straightforward and frank. Then your people can truly learn, grow and become more attuned to the goals of the organization.

How to Grow More Compassionate as a Leader

If your goal is to complement your logical leadership with heart-based qualities like compassion, remember that your heart is a muscle and muscles require exercise.

Therefore, if you want to become more compassionate, you must practice. It may not seem natural, but the more you work on your compassion, the more it will become second nature to you.

Here are some practices that can help you grow your compassion and become a more grounded, effective and successful leader:

Listen and Learn

You are a leader, but that doesn’t mean you know it all. If you’re good at your job, you’ve surrounded yourself with intelligent people who possess their own wisdom and smarts so listen to them and solicit their opinions. Give them the chance to contribute their expertise. Being stubborn or thinking you know it all kills compassion. Instead, be open to the growth that can come from allowing yourself to learn from others.

Communicate Mindfully

Your ability to listen and learn will be enhanced tremendously by your willingness to communicate with others more mindfully. Don’t monopolize meetings and conversations. Give people room to express themselves. Provide feedback on a continuous, collaborative basis. Ask thoughtful questions and stay present so you can receive thoughtful answers. You should also tune in to their body language and how they are presenting themselves. Also, be aware of your own body language and how you are showing up for your people.  

Encourage Healthy Competitiveness

Healthy competitiveness can enhance performance and drive people to greater heights. But greedy, selfish behaviors that come from unhealthy competition can poison teams, cultures, and organizations. You are not in competition with your people to see who can accomplish more or receive the most praise. You are there to inspire them and to show that you are willing to put forth the same effort you are asking of them.

Keep in mind that compassion is contagious. The more compassionate you are, the more compassionate your people will be.

Can You Be a More Compassionate Leader?

What does being more compassionate mean to you?  Do you see it is as a critical must-have soft skill to lead in today’s world of work? I would love to hear from you.

Feel free to reach out to me by emailing me at or calling me at 1.855.871.3374.

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