The Powerful Case For Compassionate Leadership

|, November 25, 2016

Last week, on Super Soul Sunday, Oprah Winfrey interviewed LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner about compassionate leadership. Before you dismiss it as an unattainable ideal, take a moment to think about the individuals having the conversation: both manage multi-national businesses worth billions of dollars, are globally recognized leaders, and have impacted how many of us live and work. So, there must be something to it, right?

Let’s start by defining compassion. According to the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, it is sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it (a bit of a mouthful).  Simply, it is how I feel about your suffering (empathy) and my wish to help you feel better (action).  From my experience, compassion impacts relationships positively, and – to be blunt – has the power to turn the manager/managed relationship on its head.

According to Thupten Jinpa, principal English translator to the Fourteenth Dalai Lama compassion is one of the fundamental principles of leadership and managers should have a sense of responsibility to the welfare of the other.  Management is not about “power over” someone else, but about tapping into the “power of” the other.  Compassion allows both sides to feel connected at a deeper level.

But how do compassion and leadership combine? In a Harvard Business Review entitled Why Compassion Is a Better Managerial Tactic than Toughness, Emma Seppala, Ph.D., at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education found that “when trust, loyalty, and creativity are high, and stress is low, employees are happier and more productive and turnover is lower. Positive interactions even make employees healthier and require fewer sick days.” In fact, companies practicing “conscious capitalism” (like Google, Whole Foods, and my employer) perform ten times better than companies that don’t.

This approach is clearly a win-win. So where do we start?

  • Take a breath: Being present is essential and with the speed of daily life, the practice of workplace meditation is on the rise – mindfulness rooms and meditation teachers within the walls of corporations aren’t uncommon.
  • Invest your time in others: Weiner insists that spending “compassion time” with an employee, or time to teach and guide, leads to that person’s greater efficiency, productivity, and effectiveness.
  • Let go of blame: when star players on the team make mistakes or reach burn-out levels it is the manager’s job to step in and give that person a timeout. Weiner himself has stated “not once has anyone come to me and said they couldn’t do their job. That’s not their job. That’s the role of the manager.”
  • Raise Your EQ: Thupten Jinpa considers affective emotional understanding to be a pillar of compassionate leadership. People want to know you feel what they feel and understand what they are going through. Consider what could be going on in someone else’s life and think about how you would feel in their place.

Compassionate leadership is not a new idea; it has been in practice in many forms for thousands of years (from The Buddha to President Barack Obama). But as we move through the demands and deadlines of our day it can be one of the hardest ideas to live by.

However, as we have seen with the personal and business success of influential leaders globally, compassionate management has numerous benefits. It is at the root of change management, retention of a happy workforce, and positive growth.

So next time you feel the urge to rage over a colleague’s mistake or think it isn’t worth it to stop and ask, hey, do you want to talk through what just happened? Think again. Compassion is like a muscle, flex it often and you will not just make a great leader you will also be an inspiration.


  1. Anthony O.

    Fantastic read. Thank you for the great post, Stacey! From the perspective of an aspiring people manager, I definitely enjoyed reading this and found it very relevant. A compassionate leader is something I strive to be. Nowadays, I’m happy to see more organizations making valuable, conscious choices and adopting practices to work towards this ideal.

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