Why All Leaders Need To Develop Compassion

GCG Leadership Development Team

What is compassion?

It’s crucial to strengthen yourself as a leader. But make sure to remember that this is because you’re ultimately looking to strengthen your team. That’s where compassion comes in. Now, compassion is an important word but also one that people often bring their own meaning to. This can lead to a fundamental misunderstanding, and confusion, around the meaning of the terms compassion, empathy, and sympathy. 

So what is compassion and how is it different from sympathy and empathy? Simply put: 

Sympathy is the ability to understand what someone else is feeling. This allows you to logically understand the issues at play. 

Empathy is the ability to emotionally feel what someone else is feeling. This is most common when we see someone experience physical pain (getting hurt in a car accident) or intense joy (finding out they got the big promotion at work) and we mimic that emotion. 

Compassion, however, doesn’t stop at just sympathy or empathy. In fact, compassion is when you experience sympathy, empathy, or both, and then you follow that up with something to help alleviate the person’s suffering in their situation. 

Compassion means you don’t run away from the suffering, you’re not overwhelmed by the suffering, but you are there to support them alongside the suffering. You are choosing to do whatever it takes to support your team such that their potential is fulfilled. And because it’s a choice, that means it is a skill that you can actively develop. 

Why is compassion so important in leadership? 

Leaders are tasked with making difficult choices and there’s always the danger that we distance ourselves from our team in an effort to make this easier on ourselves. However, this has been consistently shown to have adverse effects. In viewing team members as cogs in the machine rather than human beings in need of nurture and care, the tone of the workplace slowly but surely becomes one where people do not feel safe or supported. Avoid this recipe for disaster at all costs. 

Instead, embrace compassionate leadership and nurture innovation by investing time, effort, and resources into your team members. In doing so you will not only build others up but you will create a healthy working environment that gives people stability and makes them feel safe. After all, it’s only when workers feel safe that they’re willing to take risks, speak freely, and deploy lateral thinking techniques in their problem solving. In short, everything you want your team to be doing to innovate and disrupt so that your organization can grow. 

This is doubly true during these trying times. When entire industries are having to make massive adaptations and adjustments in an effort to survive it’s no wonder that individual employees are feeling unsettled, insecure, and disconnected. Though, to be clear, compassion isn’t a skill we can afford to focus on now and neglect later. This pandemic has reminded us just how vital it is that we develop compassionate leaders ready to lead teams through whatever storms life throws our way. 

How to become a more compassionate leader? 

One of the first steps to becoming a more compassionate leader is to look at the leadership examples you’ve experienced in your own career. 

What leaders have you worked with that were compassionate? How did their actions impact you in meaningful ways? What about the dispassionate leaders you’ve worked for? How did their attitude and approach affect you? Self-reflection on these experiences should give you a good starting point for what to embrace and what to avoid. 

The next port of call is getting to know your team better. 

This starts with listening and asking questions rather than leading with lots of your own stories and ego. There’s nothing wrong with sharing an anecdote to show that you can relate to a team member’s experience but the more value a leader places on individual team members the more empowered that team becomes. 

This is even truer once you’ve developed relationships with your team members that extend beyond purely workplace interactions. Don’t underestimate the impact you have on your team when you connect over family, hobbies, or the latest movie. Personal connections are powerful. 

An empowered team is one that can take bold action and achieve impressive results. But in order to make full use of those results, and keep the hard earned momentum they bring with them, it’s crucial that you create a culture of gratitude and recognition within your team. When someone does a good job, they feel great about it. But nothing spoils this faster than feeling like it’s gone unnoticed. So be generous in praising your team for their successes and be supportive of them when they encounter failure. In doing so you’ll win their long term respect, admiration, and loyalty. 

Do not lose sight of the fact that your influence on your team, as a leader, extends beyond the workplace. According to Harvard Business Review, “Research suggests that the most powerful way leaders can improve employee wellbeing is not through programs and initiatives but through day to-day actions. For example, data from a large study run by Anna Nyberg at the Karolinska Institute shows that having a harsh manager is linked to heart problems in employees. On the other side of the coin, research demonstrates that leaders who are inspiring, empathetic, and supportive have more loyal and engaged employees.” 

Finally, you’ve got to be authentic and consistent. 

You can’t tell your team that you’re seeking to build a compassionate and safe work environment and then take actions that conflict with those goals. Follow through with your aims by seeking to genuinely develop as a more positive person, rather than putting on a mask and hoping for the best. This is hard work and it takes time but it leads to a team full of people who will work their hardest for you, not out of fear, but because you’ve been a truly inspiring leader to them. 


At GCG we’re interested in helping leaders develop in all areas of their lives. This means learning to see yourself, and your team, in a more considerate light. To that end, we use a proven coaching approach called 360 Feedforward Coaching. The foundation of this approach is that whether leaders grow or stagnate their teams notice and are directly impacted by the results. So that means the best thing you can do for your team is to grow. Bringing your team into this shows that you care about their day to day experience, you trust them to find your blind spots, and that you’re willing to work hard to become the best leader you can be. 

Learn more about our leadership coaching programs here or download the Leadership Coaching for Professionals brochure here.

If you are a leadership coach looking to become a part of the world’s largest leadership coaching organization with ICF accredited certifications, click here or download the Coach Certification Program brochure here.


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