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Compassion Can’t Buy Me Love! (Not in leadership, anyway!)

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

Courage, compassion and wisdom. the 3 treasures of effective leaders…

Of the three, we probably spend more workshop time on compassion than any other topic. And it’s the most misunderstood quality of leadership.

Let’s start by busting two myths about compassion…

#1 Compassion is kindness.

No. It’s not. Is that direct enough?

Kindness is one way to express compassion, but note that one of our key Strategies reads this way––on purpose:

“Be tough––yet compassionate.”

I’ve argued a number of times with people who tell me that compassion should come before being tough. I disagree. First, a leader must sometimes do and say things that hurt people, but that will be best for them.


  • A good leader has to criticize, call people to task and point out faults and misdeeds. Letting it slide does no good to the individual, the others in the area and the organization.

  • A leader has to share bad news––honestly and openly.

  • A leader has to confront bad actors––even those who are close or those who are top producers.

  • Same for under-performers, even if they’ve been key contributors in the past.

#2: People will love you when you love them.

Well, sometimes.

One of the top subjects in our Sensei in the C-Suite sessions is the common feeling among leaders that they and their work are simply not appreciated. That goes with the territory.

The best leaders express compassion unconditionally. That is, with no expectation of return. You’ve got to know you’re doing your best for the people who trust in your leadership. They are not always going to understand or appreciate your efforts, even when you’re doing your best to communicate your reasoning.

A responsible leader must make decisions that are unpopular. And sometimes an action that is best for the group can and will still anger and alienate people.

You need a tough hide to be a leader!

Now that doesn’t mean you need to be a jerk! But compassion is not defined by kindness, avoiding trouble or doing only what makes you beloved.

The common definition of compassion is:

“…a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.”

Think of “suffering” in our application as the trials and tribulations of every day life––or business! A leader must have genuine empathy. You must make it a sincere practice to understand people’s needs and concerns, and of course to lead the way to a better condition or to “alleviate the suffering.”

The key component of compassion as it relates to leadership is that idea of “empathy.” People respond best to leaders who care about them. Leaders who truly understand their needs, concerns, interests and ambitions.

But again, that doesn’t mean they’re going to love you all the time. Or even if they do, that they’ll always show it.

I heard a great story of a man who was crossing a street with his daughter. A truck came barreling out of nowhere. The man jerked his daughter by the arm to save her life.

Once they got to the sidewalk, the daughter ran crying to the arms of her mother. When the father caught up and tried to hug the girl, she screamed at him, “You hurt my arm!”

“But honey, I was trying to save your life!”

“But you really hurt me!”

Keep that story in mind the next time you have to confront an employee for bad behavior or poor performance. You know you’re doing what’s best––that this person can’t improve unless you help them face their shortfall…

But it’s still going to hurt!

Let’s wrap it up by going back to our Big 3.

Genuine compassion is indivisible from courage and wisdom.

Wisdom being knowledge and experience tempered by awareness––you must practice accurate self-awareness to know your actions, while maybe painful or unpopular, are correct and to know that they might not be received with gratitude and warmth.

And of course, it takes courage to do what’s right.

Especially when it’s not easy.

Compassion is the connecting tissue of leadership. Genuine and sincere understanding is the key to connecting with the people you serve and the foundation for earning their respect, trust and loyalty. Compassion the binding force between all human beings.

Just measure your expectations and accept the reality that your compassion is a guarantee that you’ll be loved. Not all the time and not right now, anyway!

So with compassion, more than any other discipline, the key is to give. Don’t wait for a return.

“The wise man does not lay up his treasures. The more he gives, the more he has for his own.” ~Lao Tzu

And there is no greater treasure than compassion.


This is one of the meaningful issues we tackle in SENSEI LEADER MOVEMENT Workshops.

My job is to support you and help you develop as a compassionate, effective human-centric leader––to help you bring out the best in the people you serve.

The best way to do this is face to face…

I have programs for every organization, large and small and for leaders at all levels from the front lines to the C-Suite.

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