What Does Compassion Have To Do With Leadership?

Why is compassion in leadership important?  There are two levels of response to this question – one, which is the focus on this blog post, is compassion for self; the other is compassion for others which will be a future post.  Both are very important in how we lead.

Being compassionate with yourself can actually increase your impact as a leader. Yet, it is a capability that does not come naturally to most.  Continue reading to learn how.

As an executive coach, I often hear about clients’ more challenging times.  And, what I most frequently observe is how little compassion they can generate for themselves in these moments.  The reason this is important is that being so hard on oneself can create less than optimal conditions for performance and have a negative impact on your thinking.   Generating compassion has become a vital skill as it is challenging to attain predictable results with so much change and complexity in work environments. Especially when a leader prides themselves on getting it right.

When I ask clients, how can you be more kind to yourself here?  I often get a confused look accompanied by, “I don’t understand what you mean” or “I don’t know how”.   This can be a foreign concept to many.   Leaders are driven toward success, believe in hard work and taking things seriously –   so be kind to oneself?   This is about soldiering on and repairing things, not turning to mush.

What I am suggesting is not about getting soft and fuzzy.  And it certainly is not about losing momentum or focus, in fact it is about just the opposite.  It is challenging when things go wrong or prove difficult and it can create a sense of disappointment, one that can become a disappointment in self.  That is a perfectly natural feeling, however, it can take the wind out of your sails.  Why spend time beating yourself up when you could channel that energy more productively? Being fair and objective while keeping a sightline to the bigger picture is key.

Here is a method to keep a healthy perspective, be reasonable with yourself and maintain your results orientation:

Breathe! Take 10 deep belly breaths and calm your nervous system.  Do this slowly and follow the flow of your breath with your mind.  Breathe in through the nose for a count of 4, holding at the top and slowly breathe out for a count of 7 through your mouth.  When we are emotionally upset it can cloud our judgment in how we see things. Creating a calm presence in the body enables greater clarity and objectivity in the mind.

Gain Perspective.  Look at the situation from a mile-high view so that you can see, far and wide, all the contextual issues in the situation at hand.  Ask yourself:  What are the facts?  What else was going on?  What do you see now that you didn’t see before? What might you be assuming that needs to be better understood?  What were you responsible for?  What were others responsible for?  What really happened here?  What are you learning from this experience?  How do you want to feel about this?  Often times we will find other factors at play that help us put our experience in a broader, more objective perspective.

Be Compassionate with Yourself.  Ask yourself, how can I be “fair and kind” to myself given these circumstances?   This will help build your resilience as a leader. If you shared this story with your best friend or a trusted colleague, what might they say to you?  Where do you need to stop judging yourself so harshly?  What would it be like to have some tolerance for not being able to manage things perfectly given perfect conditions for success rarely exist?  What would it be like if you also gave others involved the same consideration?

Notice any shift.  Take a moment after working through this process and notice any shift in your thinking and how you are feeling?  What has opened up for you?  What have you accepted about your situation?

Plan next steps.   Consider what you are learning and how that might inform you of your next steps.  Perhaps this is about what to do differently next time or about how to resolve the situation.  If you made a mistake, consider how you want to handle it.

Compassion is not about being soft.  It’s about accepting what is, seeing it objectively and thoughtfully, and being supportive to yourself.  It is okay to feel disappointed in yourself at times, that is a natural feeling.  However, it is equally important to look at the full picture, gain perspective and mobilize yourself in a resourceful and resilient way.  There are usually many different factors at play, and while by no means am I saying absolve yourself of responsibility, there is an advantage to being reasonable and fair with yourself.


  • To catch yourself when you are being hard on yourself
  • Walk through the 5 steps
  • As you repeat this practice, reflect on how increasing your self-compassion is affecting your overall leadership impact and resilience


Research has shown that it is easier to have compassion for others than for yourself. So, if you find this difficult, you may wish to focus on generating compassion for others and grow this skill so it becomes more natural to apply to yourself.   Having compassion for others will be the topic of the next blog post, so stay tuned.