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Compassionate Leadership

Success in managing projects requires leadership skills. Leadership is defined as the process of getting a group of people in a direction, to pursue common objectives.


The most effective leaders use mostly non-coercive means and seek to satisfy the groups best interests.

Leadership skills boil down to the ability to create a vision, motivate and influence followers to realize the vision, build teams, communicate, listen, negotiate.  These skills are supported by mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom.


Here we focus on compassion.  Compassionate leaders motivate and influence their followers.  A recent Harvard Business Review article, posits that “Compassion in leadership creates stronger connections between people. It improves collaboration, raises levels of trust, and enhances loyalty.  In addition, studies find that compassionate leaders are perceived as stronger and more competent.”[1]

[1] Compassionate Leadership Is Necessary — but Not Sufficient

The article’s authors define compassion as “the quality of having positive intentions and real concern for others.” According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, compassion is the “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Compassion is exhibited in helpful acts of kindness. The Dalai Lama has said that “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others.  And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”

Servant Leadership

“The simple idea that a manager is there to care for his or her subordinates is expressed in the work of Robert K Greenleaf on Servant Leadership. Servant leadership is a set of leadership practices and a management philosophy that begins with the idea that a manger is there to serve his subordinates, so they are better able to perform. 

Servant-leaders share power, put the needs of others first, and enable people to develop and perform optimally.”[1]


Can Compassion Get in the Way of Optimal Performance?

Some view compassion as a sign of weakness that gets in the way of high performance.

The NY Times and local media stations reported an example of a less-than compassionate response from a leader. A former Texas mayor said “that residents who are dealing with electricity and water problems because of the winter storm need to “sink or swim” and to come up with their own plans on how to survive.” Is this rugged individualism a sign of strength?

The project manager who, in front of the team, calls a subordinate a “weak link in the chain” displays insensitivity and impatience rather than strength.

But there are no absolutes. Distorted compassion can get in the way of performance, and when it does it may be a sign of weakness.  Misdirected and distorted compassion can become a hinderance to effective performance.

For example, a leader who thinks it is an act of kindness to avoid confronting poor performance has a distorted view of compassion.  The over empathetic boss may be feeling the subordinate’s pain or may be projecting his or her own feelings.  However, it does not help the poor performer to have his or her performance shortfalls ignored.

Firm Kindness

It is compassionate to address the issue with firm kindness – tough love.  That way the subordinate can grow from the feedback.

I recall the first time I had to fire someone.  I was leading a team at a client site.  The project was a critical one and the client was impatient.  The young man had joined our team as a software developer.  He was a sweet guy with a young family and was eager to succeed.  As it turned out, after a couple of months it became clear that he was a terrible programmer.  His teammates were constantly correcting his errors.  I was tutoring him.  He was making the same errors repeatedly, even after he was shown what they were and how to avoid them.  The rest of the team was growing as impatient as the client.

He cried when I told him, as kindly as possible that he was fired.  My heart ached for him, yet I knew I had done the right thing, the compassionate thing.

About a year later, the guy contacted me and thanked me for what I had done.  He had been suffering with the realization that programming was not his thing.  He had subsequently landed a sales job and was happy and doing well financially.  He said I had really helped him.

Compassionate action is not always easy and may seem unkind.  However, the leader’s job is to consider the effect of his or her action on the team as a whole and to treat everyone with firm kindness.

This is wise compassion. “Leaders operating in this mode are balancing concern for their people with the need to move their organizations forward in an efficient, productive manner.  When tough action is needed, they get it done with genuine caring for people’s feelings and well-being.”[1]


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[1] Compassionate Leadership Is Necessary – But Not Sufficient

Cultivate Compassion

Wisdom teachers say that compassion is a natural quality that arises when we recognize our interdependence with others and our common experience.  We naturally want to help ourselves and others overcome suffering and achieve happiness.

However, our natural compassion may be covered over or distorted because of our upbringing and cultural influences.  Compassion can be cultivated so that it is displayed skillfully.

To cultivate compassion:

  • Enhance your mindfulness, training your mind to objectively observe whatever is happening within and around you
  • Use your mindful awareness to increase your emotional intelligence – cultivating self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management
  • Train your compassion using Loving Kindness Meditation to practice treating yourself and others, including those you might not like, with kindness and compassion – wishing them peace, health and happiness
  • Practice self-compassion.  Be kind to yourself.  Self-compassion is the foundation for being compassionate with others
  • Directly confront issues that may take you out of your comfort zone – whether that is to overcome distorted compassion or to overcome insensitivity and non-caring.

Related Articles

The Practical Side of Empathy – A Critical PM Success Factor

The Foundation for Agile Leadership – Mindfulness, Intelligence and Servant Leadership

What it Means to be a Good Leader

Compassionate Leadership Is Necessary – But Not Sufficient


The Caring Manager

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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