Compassionate Leadership — Is that Really a Thing?

Compassionate Leadership — Is that Really a Thing?

Leadership is one of those words that has as many different definitions as there are people trying to define it. But compassionate leadership? Do we really need to complicate our understanding of leadership with an adjective like compassionate?

If you follow me here or on social media, you know that compassionate leadership is a pretty important topic to me these days. I’ve written a soon to be released book on the subject based on my experiences and my observations of compassionate leaders. But what is it? Is it just being nice to the people you manage? Is it all about appearances?

Related: The Modern Compassionate Leader — 12 Essential Characteristics of the Rising Sales Leader

No. It’s a real thing.

To me, compassionate leadership combines two distinctly powerful words that form a new indivisible concept. Neither term trumps the other. Leadership isn’t more important than compassion. Compassion isn’t merely an accent to leadership. I’m not focusing more on either word nor paying lip service to other. Compassionate leadership is a unique and powerful concept.

So what is it?

I believe compassionate leadership is evident when leaders balance and blend the essential hard and soft skills they draw upon to guide others on a daily basis. These are the technical and emotional competencies that work together to form a leadership approach that leaves individuals whole, fulfilled, and striving for mutual success for themselves and the people around them. Compassionate leadership fosters an environment of abundance and encouragement where people learn and thrive. It embraces human dynamics while advancing understanding of empirical knowledge. It isn’t one and it isn’t the other. It is all of it.

I like to use the terms hard and soft skills to describe the core competencies of the compassionate leader. I know these simple terms trigger biases that have been conditioned in us in the business world for decades, so let’s talk about them.

The hard skills. These are the must-have capabilities. They involve your math and science muscles. Your IQ. Your ability to exercise management discipline. Conventional wisdom says these are the skills you need the most. They dominated the curriculum in business school. Deficiencies in the hard skills can be career threatening. Fill your gaps here.

The soft skills. These are less important. They include the emotional intelligence side of things. Your EQ. These are trendy now as companies try to figure out how to solve burnout. How to establish work-life balance among their employees. But if you’re not great at these, perhaps you can bluff your way through your career. The people around you might notice your shortcomings, but you can sustain your career trajectory because those who observe you from a distance only care about your business metrics. All you need to do is avoid disasters here.

Do you believe all that?

I don’t. I use these simple terms because I can quickly reach a common understanding in my conversations about leadership skills. Hard skills are technical skills. Your book smarts. Analytical abilities. How you break down problems and solve them. No confusion here. Soft skills are another matter. Here’s what they are not. They are not less important than hard skills. They are not touchy and they are not feely. They are not the skills that only managers who come up short on the hard skills overemphasize. Soft skills are not the “being nice” skills. They are your people skills. Your ability to understand your employees as human persons. Your capacity to understand that all business decisions have an emotional element. They cannot be broken down to science alone, because people are always involved. People always have emotional motives. There is no such thing as work-life balance. There is just life.

Related: You Already Know What Leadership Is

In my view, compassionate leadership occurs when leaders apply 12 distinctive skills in their work of guiding others in the business world. These skills fall into 4 categories and are essential for today’s compassionate leader.

Strategic Leadership

Leaders who fully commit to their authored or assigned strategy and align their teams behind the strategy achieve success. They are the champions for the long view, making today’s decisions courageously to keep everyone connected to the strategy.

Strategic Thinking — Can you align others to your authored or adopted strategy? Can you keep everyone connected to your objectives even when new opportunities and challenges appear?

Long-Range Focus — Are you playing the long game? Can you see beyond the current quarter or current year? Are you leading a team that is becoming something or are you just making sales?

Managerial Courage — Can you make the tough calls? Can you stand up to management? To customers? Do you pursue the unforeseen opportunity and avoid distraction from shiny objects?

Productive Leadership

Execution is the ante for all successful leaders. Today’s leaders must possess the knowledge and intention to deliver results and make decisions that help teams win.

Functional Competence — Are you capable across the essential technical skills and do you know your gaps? Are you consistently leveraging your business acumen and continually sharpening your saw?

Productive Intent — Do you begin every interaction with a destination in mind? Do you influence others in meetings with colleagues and customers to reach the finish line on time and on target?

Sound Judgment — Can you make good decisions by considering available information and inputs in a timely manner? Are you flexible enough to refine your direction when new information arrives at your doorstep?

Assertive Leadership

Leaders who withstand storms that arrive without notice guide teams effectively. Assertive leaders hold a curious mindset even when circumstances are most difficult. They fully commit to success and recover quickly from setbacks.

Calm Steadiness — Can you stay focused when the lights are shining brightly on you? Do you continue to think clearly when failure is possible or when you are directly challenged by others?

Learning Orientation — Are you uncomfortable about the things you don’t yet know? Do you start each day curious about something new and end each day with gained knowledge and insights?

Pragmatic Resilience — Do you have the ability to bounce back from setbacks even after you’ve gone all in? Do you allow others the freedom to fail and then pick them up to face the next challenge?

The Heart of Leadership

Leaders and their team members are full persons. Intellect and emotion are embraced, not separated by the compassionate leader. Honest, personal relationships are the key to creating teams that win together and stay together.

Empathy — Do you step into the lives of those around you? Do you see the landscape from their shoes? Do you strive to understand what keeps them up at night?

Transparency — Do you walk unguarded through your relationships? Can others understand the personal factors that make you tick and stop your watch? Do you meet others on a level plain despite titles?

Humility — Do you share credit and shoulder blame? Do you see yourself as no better, yet no worse than those around you? Do you feel genuine and sincere joy in the accomplishments of others?

These are the cornerstones of compassionate leadership. In my experience, leaders I’ve observed who consistently demonstrate these behaviors build a tradition of success all around them. They form teams that deliver sustainable success over the long haul. They are the leaders I’ve always been delighted to follow.

There are so many definitions of leadership I’ve heard or read in books over the years. But it is just one of those things that you recognize when you see it.

Compassionate leadership is also something you recognize when you see it.

And when you feel it.

Lead well.

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Originally published at on June 23, 2017.

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