The Essentials of Real Leadership: Compassion


Reflections and Thoughts by Dr. Peter Cheng

Co-Founder & Chief of Dialogue


This article is the sixth of a 9-part series by Dr. Peter Cheng that discusses the Who-ness and What-ness of A Real Leader who Shapes Culture and Drives Performance.



Compassion refers to the leader’s ability to exercise care and concern by putting oneself in the shoes of others. It is the ability to empathise with followers in their predicaments and providing the needed support to see them through.


In my previous article, I shared with you about Credibility, a key essential that makes the Who-ness of real leaders. In this article, I will be sharing with you how real leaders demonstrate compassion to engage their constituents.

In this KPI and ROI-driven business world, managers can often stray away from being compassionate as they drive for results. Real Leaders however, exercise compassion, care, and concern for their people. They empathise with their constituents’ predicaments and provide the needed support to see them through. Real leaders place people before results, knowing that taking care of the former will deliver the latter.

Compassion” in Greek bears a broader meaning such as “to love”, and “to show mercy”. Other synonyms for compassion in English are “to show concern for”, “to be tenderhearted, and” and “to act kindly.”

In Latin, “passio” which means to suffer and the latin prefix “com” means “together”. Hence compassion translated from latin can be seen as “ to suffer together”. While it may not make sense to be “engulfed” in others' sufferings, Real Leaders demonstrate their willingness to suffer together with others, taking others’ sufferings as their own and elevating the compassion in them.


Lilius et al. (2008) discovered that employees who were shown compassion at work are more likely to commit to their organisation besides saying positive things about them. The same research revealed that employees who experienced compassion showed positive emotions while at work and this yielded a stream of crucial organisational deliverables.

Powley (2009) found that colleagues emerging from a shared trauma and compassion strengthens the quality of relationships among colleagues. It also heightens the sense of community and belonging which is so critically needed in an era where team work is greatly emphasised by organisations around the world.

Another research suggests that the act of compassion has a positive impact on those who witness it being extended to the recipient. (Grant, Dutton, & Rosso, 2008; Lilius et al., 2008).  Haidt (2003) found that witnessing others engaging in virtuous action cause others to want to engage in similar behaviour. This is further supported by Oveis et al (2010) whose research advocates that compassion is correlated with a heightened degree of self-other similarity.  Hence, when leaders show compassion to one employee, the snowballing effect is greater than one could imagine.


Given the benefits that can be derived from being compassionate, leaders should not just be confined to driving results to achieve KPIs and ROI but instead immerse themselves to demonstrate compassion to their people.

Below are some of the behaviours that Real Leaders demonstrate as they show compassion for their people.

Sharing Pain

Real leaders do not inflict pain on their constituents; instead, they share their pains by showing concern for their people’s well being. One of the prime levers to engage the workforce is to ensure their well-being are taken care of.  Leaders who care for employees’ wellbeing certainly would have them engaged.

A research conducted by Aon Hewitt confirms that an engaged workforce strives for their organisation, stay longer in the organisation and say good things about their organisation to others. They are highly productive and committed as result. One of my clients, FujiXerox, has “Care and Concern” among their shared values. CEO Bert Wong champions this value ardently with his team of managers to ensure that every member of FXS lives out this value. The result? An engaged and productive workforce with very low staff turnover.

What might be some ways you can show concern for the well-being of your people? Begin with one today and you will be on your way to having a more engaged team or workforce that will reap greater productivity and commitment.

Giving Others The Right To Appeal

Real leaders are mindful that employees are not modern day slaves.  When things go wrong and the employees are accused of any wrong doing, real leaders provide opportunities for their people to appeal their case.  Real leaders allow their people to express their views and take efforts to listen to all sides of differing opinions. They embrace a flexible and open mindset to ideas, giving others a chance to justify their thoughts and actions.

Are you prepared to see things from different viewpoints?  Do you give your people the right to appeal their case?  What would you do differently to grant them the right to appeal?


Do What Matters In The Heart

The general business environment centers around functional logic and sound principles to make decisions. However, Real Leaders consider above and beyond the head to consider the things that matter to the heart. Often times, leaders are faced with making decisions that ignore the feelings of the heart of others. With the increasing business disruptions and merger and acquisitions, we see how senior management exercises actions that are logical but at times, heartless. The act of delayering organisations seems logical in response to economic challenges, but it has often been executed without the heart factor in place.

Employees lose their trust in organisations that delayer ruthlessly. While it may be necessary for restructuring at times, leaders could find ways to consider the heart factor in the restructuring process.  One example could be giving the affected employees sufficient time to seek alternative employment or connecting them to other employment opportunities. When the heart factor is involved, there is empathy. Real leaders are empathetic in their actions. It involves seeing the employees’ situation from their perspectives and sharing their emotions, including distress. In demonstrating compassion, real leaders relieve others of their suffering.

Take a look at your people at work. Is there something that causes sufferings that needs your attention? What decisions do you make that may be lacking the heart factor? Consider how you could exercise tough decisions but still, have the heart factor in its implementation. Think of the actions that you would take to empathise with them and follow up with actions to relieve them of their sufferings.

Offering help to others when needed

One of the most disappointing moments in life is when people are turned down by others when they genuinely need help. Imagine this happening in an organisation when leaders refuse to lend a hand to needy employees. The need could be in the form of advice to solve an issue, a resource to complete a task or even extending a deadline to allow for more time to complete a job.

Real leaders in their compassionate mode, are sensitive even to unspoken needs of others through observations or perhaps taking time to “walk the floor”.  You too can make an impact to people at the workplace and beyond. Be sensitive to unexpressed needs and extend help to the needy people around you.


Expressing faith in others' abilities

The bible says that if you have the faith of a mustard seed, you can move mountains. Real leaders know the power of positive psychology in expressing faith in others’ abilities by affirming the skills and works of others at the workplace.  In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.” This is what real leaders do to show compassion for their people- taking the first step to first believe in others while being empathetic to them. Mahatma Gandhi added, “You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is like an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

Real leaders choose to see the positive in others and that positivity, in turn, can generate ‘mountain-moving” feats that one might not have dreamt of.  When was the last time you expressed faith in others?  It’s about time you did.   


Real leaders show compassion to their constituents while achieving results through their people. Various positive outcomes follow leaders who are compassionate; among these include increased workforce productivity, commitment, reduced staff turnover and being an advocate for the organisation. I encourage you to start practising compassion today!

Do email me personally at to find out how your organisation can build compassionate leaders!


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