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Compassionate Leadership: Doing Hard Things in a Human Way

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

The greatest challenge for most leaders is to do hard things in a human way. How do leaders take care of the difficult actions that come with leadership (such as managing crises, quick pivots, layoffs, and hard conversations) while also recognizing our shared humanity, connecting with others, and inspiring people through authenticity?

As businesses deal with unprecedented disruption, an exhausted workforce, and high rates of attrition, this type of leadership is needed more than ever. Postpandemic, employees are placing higher levels of trust in their employers (76 percent) and CEOs (63 percent). Many people are reassessing their working lives and looking for new employment opportunities, and research shows that a person’s relationship with their leader is the primary factor in a person’s job satisfaction.

Many leaders think that they have to make the difficult, binary choice between being a good person or being a hard leader. But this is a false dichotomy. According to a multiyear research study on compassionate leadership that my colleagues and I conducted with Harvard Business Review and our academic partners, the most successful leaders combine wisdom with compassion. Wisdom is the ability to be transparent with others and do what needs to be done even when it is uncomfortable. Compassion is the demonstration of care and empathy for another person combined with an intention to support and help.

The findings from this study, which form the basis of our newest book, Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way, offer a strong case for balancing business wisdom with compassion. For starters, leading with wise compassion greatly benefits leaders. There is a direct correlation between a leader’s level of wise compassion and a company’s rank. The data also reveals that highly compassionate leaders have 66 percent lower stress than their less compassionate counterparts, a 200 percent lower intention to quit, and 14 percent higher efficacy.

The findings also reveal that employees benefit when leaders demonstrate wisdom or compassion and even more so when leaders demonstrate both qualities. For example, compared to leaders rated low in wisdom and compassion by their employees (which account for 36 percent of leaders in our study), employee experience is enhanced in this way:

  • Job satisfaction is 35 percent higher under wise leaders, 34 percent higher under compassionate leaders, and 85 percent higher under leaders who are wise and compassionate.
  • Organizational commitment is 31 percent higher under wise leaders, 33 percent higher under compassionate leaders, and 61 percent higher under leaders who are wise and compassionate.
  • Burnout is 25 percent lower under wise leaders, 22 percent lower under compassionate leaders, and 64 percent lower under leaders who are wise and compassionate.

Though wise compassion may sound like a simple idea, it’s not easy to demonstrate. As part of our research, we looked at how leaders struggle most when balancing business wisdom with compassion. The hardest thing for most leaders is to find the courage to enter into difficult situations with other people. Many leaders have been trained in management skills such as setting direction, managing plans, and solving problems. Leaders also have empathy, yet it is challenging to improve followership, commitment, and a sense of belonging while managing the difficult situations that leadership necessitates.


So how can leaders balance wisdom with compassion? Research shows that there are four skill sets a leader needs to find the right balance of both.

1) Caring presence. Be there for others. Leadership is about connection, and there is no possibility of connection if we are not first present ourselves.

2) Caring courage. Choose courage over comfort. Our brains are wired to seek comfort, and overcoming this orientation requires courage to move past our fear or dread of hurting others or having them disagree with us. When this skill is lacking, bigger problems arise.


3) Caring candor. Be compassionately candid. If we are not candid with people, we do not give them the opportunity to grow. But severe candor without compassion can create hostile, ruthless environments. With caring candor, we deliver the message in the most kind and direct way, which allows for the other person to receive it quickly and for the real conversation to begin.

4) Caring transparency. Be open and honest and get ideas out in the open. It takes courage to share information that people might not want to hear, but caring transparency allows for a culture of trust and confidence.

Together, these hard and soft skills can unite to create a harmonious balance and greater ability in a leader to master the art of doing hard things in a human way.

If you're interested in learning more or have best practices of your own to share, join me at the ATD 2022 International Conference & EXPO for the session Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in Human Ways.

About the Author

Marissa Afton is an international partner and head of global accounts with Potential Project. She is a change management professional who has led culture change solutions globally for clients including Cisco, Accenture, Bloomberg, Eli Lilly, and Verizon. A sought-after speaker and contributor to publications like HBR, Marissa helps people realize their potential by training the mind for high performance. A mindfulness practitioner for over 25 years, she brings expertise in executive leadership development and workplace mindfulness to support Potential Project’s global clients.

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