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Are you a compassionate leader?

Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone. Compassion is something greater.

6 min read


fowler compassionate leader

A television appeal to help refugees literally brought me to tears of compassion. The ad also prompted me to ask, “Do my tears make me a compassionate person?”

Thinking deeply about it, I came to realize that my tears are worthless if I fail to move beyond sympathy to empathy and into action. People caught in the vortex of a country’s power and greed don’t need my tears. Children starving or without parents won’t survive on my tears. The working single mother struggling to spend time with her child, put food on the table and meet the demands of her job won’t gain another hour in the day or another dollar in her paycheck from my tears.

Compassion is more than feeling sorry for another person. We can pat ourselves on the back for feeling compassionate, but then, we are the only ones benefitting, which undermines the very nature of being compassionate! We need to demonstrate our compassion in ways that benefit the person or people who prompted our compassion.

True compassion compels you to act. These are questions I hope you will take time to consider and mindfully answer for yourself as a leader. Consider:

Am I a compassionate leader?

Compassion is the demonstration of empathetically caring about someone beyond your own self-interest. Six factors are used to study compassion: kindness versus indifference, common humanity versus separation, and mindfulness versus disengagement.

Notice when a crisis arises at work, people complain about changes you are making or someone asks for more money. Do you react with kindness, see the common humanity of the situation, and mindfully explore options? Or, do you drive forward with indifference, separate your emotions from your actions and disengage in the name of progress?

Research highlights how a lack of self compassion can lead to a lack of compassion for others. Self compassion is being open to one’s own suffering — not avoiding and disconnecting from it. If you are suffering, self-compassion is the ability to heal oneself with kindness.

Unfortunately, many top executives suffer a condition called alexithymia — the inability to identify and describe the emotions they are experiencing. Too many executives have risen to positions of power marked by a dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment and interpersonal relating. Without the ability to recognize and cope with their emotions, executives fall prey to fatal distractions such as money, power and status that lead to a lack of well-being. If a leader isn’t flourishing, there’s a good chance the people they lead are languishing.

How do I become a compassionate leader?

Compassion is in your nature. Research confirms that our desire to be helpful to others begins at a young age. For example, 20-month-old children are intrinsically motivated to help others. Notice how a toddler instinctively rushes to return something you’ve dropped or tries to sooth a crying baby.

A word of warning, however. Studies find that prodding or rewarding a young child’s helpful behavior undermines their natural tendency to help. Over time, workplaces, society and even well-meaning parents unwittingly contribute to the erosion of our natural inclination to be helpful to others.

Try consciously and proactively reaching out to help another person — listen deeply, give financial aid or offer to support a learning experience. Research shows that you will create choice, connection, and competence — the three psychological needs required to experience well-being. A body of evidence clearly demonstrates that when leaders create compassionate organizations that promote a sense of belonging, people are more likely to create choice, connection, and competence for themselves — resulting in innovation, creativity, productivity and financial success.

One of my concerns is that compassionate leadership gets equated with being taken advantage of or as a sign of weakness. But is it weakness, or wisdom, to show compassion to a group of people who have been enculturated for years as “less than human?”

I urge you to see the movie “Green Book” and realize that what happened to Don Shirley in the ’60s. You might not have been born yet, but many of us were school-aged and oblivious to the conditions. Today, many of us are oblivious to the after-effects that require generations to overcome. Is it weakness or wisdom to create a world where people they belong through education, equal opportunities and distributive fairness?

As we reflect upon these times, I am convinced that compassion — or the lack of it — is at the heart of many woes in our workplaces and and the world at large. Compassion requires empathy, which requires mindfulness — a skillset needing more attention in our externally motivated, results-oriented and hyper-driven work setting.

Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” My husband, Drea, says, “What you do to others, you do to yourself.” He’s describing the nature of our human connection.

When we suffer together, we deepen our connection and a desire to contribute to the greater good. Join me in declaring three words of wisdom in the new year: mindfulness, empathy, and compassion. Our mindful and empathetic compassion may be the key for creating a sense of connection and belonging that leads to peace at home, at work, and throughout the world. I think Mother Teresa was right: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”


Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest bestselling book, she explains “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” She is the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research and six books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership” and “The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit

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