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Lead with Compassion

July 2, 2013


Is compassion a weakness? That’s the question I want to address this week. When I talk to young leaders or students in my college classroom, I often ask them to name traits of effective leaders.

Strength. Confidence. Intelligent. Brave. Visionary. Motivating.

All these words are regularly among the responses that I get.

What about compassion? My gaze is met with uncertainty. Is this a trick question, I can almost hear them thinking. I understand the dilemma.

Prior to my transformation into Gold Beard, before the epiphany that led to my becoming The Boss of the Living Dead, I was just, well, a person who led people at work for a living and outside of work as a component of my psycho-social makeup. I didn’t think about leading, I just led. Therefore, I didn’t put any time or energy, at least consciously, into assessing the leadership qualities of characters, especially in characters that appear in artistic works of dark whimsy.

When a character, for example, stopped to assist another fleeing some unearthly menace and in doing so jeopardized their own prospects for survival, I protested lustily and joyfully the folly of their action. Likewise, I could never comprehend why a character, having found an undetectable (but usually small) hiding spot, would reveal themself to accommodate a panicked wayfarer in their efficiency sized lair.

Compassion is the sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it. No mention is made of a return on that investment of oneself as part of some social quid pro quo. In Season 2 of The Walking Dead, Carl Grimes takes a bullet meant for Bambi and thus puts Hershel Greene on the proverbial spot. Hershel is the leader of a band of survivors comprised primarily of his own family. Does he invite in strangers, share his limited resources, and potentially attract the wrong kind of attention to his little utopia? Hershel, a man of great moral character, choses compassion. Although the path the newly formed super-group (click here if I’m not the only one who suddenly thought of Cream, or Blind Faith, or The Dirty Mac – sorry for my digression) was far from smooth, Hershel’s decision was, by most accounts, wise. He lost his farm, but he gained a son!


A compassionate turn doesn’t always work out, however, as illustrated in 28 Weeks Later. The riveting action of the opening scene happens as a result of the decision to open the ever-penetrable impenetrable fortress to a misfortunate running slightly ahead of the pack in a zombie land rush.


“Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant with the weak and wrong. Sometime in your life, you will have been all of these.” – Siddhartha Gautama

Have you worked for a compassionate leader? How would you assess their relative strength, or weakness?

I ask because I believe that an individuals’ opinion on the merits, or lack thereof, of compassion as a leadership trait will be directly correlated to the experience they have had with the leaders they know personally. It’s common for people to take a small sample of personal experience and over generalize and make sacrosanct. Don’t feel bad, that’s why I’m here.

I have examined my own personal experiences with compassionate (or compassionless) bosses. I have read widely on the subject of compassion and on the subject of leadership. I look for the utility of people’s decisions, both in real life and in representations of life. I have considered the success and effectiveness of leaders and spent time cataloging their traits. I can tell you, therefore, categorically, that compassion has utility for you as a leader. It is never a waste of time, never a pass given, never an indication that you are dupable. The employment of compassion is not a situational tactic. It is universally applicable in all business situations. It will lead to a virtuous cycle of growth, productivity, satisfaction, profitability and efficiency.

If you are reading this and wondering if you have the requisite compassion to lead, breathe easy. The good news is that humans are pre-disposed with an innate understanding of compassion and a capacity to express it, socio-paths notwithstanding.

Are you a leader whose mentor was more on the compassionless end of the spectrum? Has that small sample than come inform your deepest beliefs on the subject?  Or have you already drunk the Kool-Aid, having benefited from a compassionate leader?

Either way, allow me to share 4 simple steps that every leader can take to infuse compassion into their leadership style, starting today.

1.    Make compassion a part of the plan.  Early in my career, the globally successful retailer I worked for hired a consulting firm to establish ‘scientific’ estimates of the time necessary for every task related to the business. This, it was believed, would allow leaders in the field to more accurately staff their business units. Unfortunately, the science did not consider that people got sick, or took vacations, or were occasionally less motivated based upon personal circumstances. The work piled up, and payroll budgets were blown.


If your business plan is contingent upon a staff that doesn’t get sick, or take vacations, or take maternity leave, you will be tempted to ask employees to work when they are sick, or on vacation, or miss important family events. You will grind your stuff to dust, resentment will fester, and they will consciously or unconsciously behave in a less productive manner.

Instead, assume that every employee will take full advantage of every sick day, every vacation day and every personal day. Then, factor in your turnover and the productivity lost because of it (both in terms of positions unfilled as well as the effect on productivity caused by a new employee’s needs). Adjust your goals accordingly so that you have no compulsion to do the wrong thing and deprive your staff of what is reasonable. Finally, communicate well so that everyone’s needs are reasonably accommodated in accord with the needs of the business.

Just this week, an employee of mine thanked me for my attitude as she simultaneously lamented the attitude of her spouse’s employer regarding time off. Seems that a pre-planned vacation was in jeopardy because her spouse’s employer could not spare him. How motivated does this employee feel? How motivated will he be knowing that the same boss will likely never cancel his own vacation?


2.    Be a ‘Do as I do’ leader rather than a ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ leader. I’m not going to suggest that you should necessary eschew all the perks of your position. If you have earned something (more vacation time, a nice corner office) than you should feel proud and comfortable in the knowledge that the manifestations of your success provide positive motivation to your team. What I do strongly suggest, however, is that you understand that your life, your family, your career, is not more important than the life, family or career of anyone, everyone on your team. Your personal celebrations are not more cherished your personal tragedies not more poignant. IF someone’s plans are to be effected, as sometimes happens, yours must be the first. You deserve a work-life balance and so does your team. Period.


3.    Open your heart and you will open your mind. Unless you find yourself leading a sociopath, you can rest assured that everyone on your team has, to a greater or lesser extent, a need for compassion and a willingness to offer it. Be open to that. But even more, be open to the differences that make each of us unique. Religion and politics have no place at work unless your business is religion or politics. Friendly discourse is fine, but beware the slippery slope. Be a man, or woman, of the people. Literally. Try hard to empathize. Before I was a parent, I was annoyed when my employees with children stayed home when school was cancelled. I gained empathy quickly and I never forgot that lesson. I apply it liberally now.



4.    Make a partner of Human Resources. This is where doing what is right morally meets doing what is right legally. Human Resource professionals are trained to err on the side of compassion as a defensive legal tactic. So make a partner of them. Doing so will benefit you in a myriad of ways.


Has my message sunk in? Or do you still think that Gandhi and leaders like him are chumps? Let me know. I love a good debate.

I also wish to share thoughts on compassion from Shinzen Young. He was, for a brief time, a teacher of mine.

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