Editor’s note: Donald Thompson, a serial entrepreneur and investor, is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire. His columns appear on Wednesdays.

RALEIGH – The last decade has seen a dramatic transformation in leadership style. Where IQ once reigned, EQ (emotional intelligence) is now taking hold. The old school command-and-control, profit-first style of management is dying fast. Clients, employees and community stakeholders now expect leaders to be more empathetic and compassionate than ever before. Today’s best leadership advice fixates on one big topic: compassion. Those of us who have been in the C-suite for multiple decades are still learning how to do that well.

What I’ve heard from many of my executive colleagues is a murmuring concern that empathy and compassion may lead to lower standards. I think that’s because empathy alone can look a lot like commiseration. It often centers on pity, not progress, which is why I prefer compassion instead. The difference between them is subtle but important. Empathy means re-positioning yourself into other people’s lives. Compassion means caring for them without adopting the emotions they’re working through.

Your job as a leader is to make the world better: to do hard things with humanity. Showing compassion does not come at the expense of performance. The good news is that balancing the two is not so tricky as it sounds.

Why compassion

In my experience, empathy does not often lead to positive change, but compassion can. Empathy focuses on weakness; compassion looks for strength. It relies on the belief that what people need most in order to grow is the time, space and support to work things out themselves. In other words, compassion centers on respect. By doing so, it creates authentic connections based on mutual esteem. It builds trust, and it improves collaboration leading to better business results.

It also creates a more inclusive environment by allowing people to bring their full selves to work. Compassionate leadership gives us a pathway to acknowledge collective stressors like the grief and fear of 2020 but not get stuck in their depth. It trains us to really look at people and try to see what they’re going through so we can adapt workplace expectations and still get the best work from our team.

Great leadership means high standards

The biggest compliment you can give someone is a high standard for what they will achieve. From that perspective, it’s important to consider what you want your compassion to achieve. Your concern is not an end in itself; it is meant to help them improve. Yes, we want people to bring their whole selves to work, but we want them to become their best selves more often. Part of being your full self is being a winner too. As leaders, it is our responsibility to cultivate those winning traits.

To do so, we must give people fair, direct and transparent guidance, even when that feedback might be hard to hear. Harvard Business Review leaned in on this idea in their recent article, Compassionate Leadership Is Necessary — but Not Sufficient. They wrote, “When a team member is underperforming, be candid and tell [them] what to work on. If you conceal your concerns in an attempt to be kind, people will neither understand expectations nor benefit from your wisdom. Because of this, concealing tough criticism is not kind – it is misleading.” Being kind means giving clear expectations and direct feedback. Being professional means being polite while also holding each other accountable.

Developing your competence

To develop your own leadership competence, practice the traits you aren’t good at yet. If traditional IQ and authority-based leadership comes naturally to you, take just one moment every day to exercise compassion. Practice seeing the full human first. When someone is not meeting expectations, work to understand what might be happening in their personal or emotional life that’s leading to those lackluster results. If EQ and compassion-based leadership is more your style, take one moment every day to practice delivering clear, direct and unemotional feedback.

I don’t mean to create a false binary here. The two are not so different as they seem, and in fact, you need to be strong at both if you want to get the best work from your team. It’s just that compassion is less familiar to most leaders. Developing your capacity for compassion will help you understand what motivates people and how you can lead them to deliver consistently great results. That’s especially true considering the unprecedented changes and challenges of this year.

In 2021 and beyond

Compassionate leadership is always needed, but it makes a more immediate and visible impact in times of crisis when employees’ needs should be front and center. Early in the pandemic, a McKinsey report emphasized the need for compassionate leadership to build resilience and set the stage for business recovery. As they phrased it, “a ‘landscape-scale’ crisis such as COVID-19 strips leadership back to its most fundamental element: making a positive difference in people’s lives.” I appreciate that thought because it helps me remember why compassion is so important.

As we end 2020 and look to next year, I’m making compassion a big part of my daily leadership practice and teaching those skills to the leaders on my team so we can create a more collaborative culture that continues to emphasize strength and respect. For me, compassion is the starting point. If you’re invested in these issues too, I’d love to hear what compassion means to you. Leave a comment below or reach out to me on LinkedIn.


With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, Donald Thompson is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture and driving exponential growth. He is a serial entrepreneur, Certified Diversity Executive, CEO of Walk West, the fastest-growing digital marketing agency in NC, and co-founder of The Diversity Movement, a data-driven Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consultancy. Their new eLearning course, Improving Culture Through Inclusive Language, was released this month.

A member of the National Speakers Association, Donald speaks frequently for businesses, organizations and universities and shares actionable insights and strategies across key functions of business strategy, entrepreneurship, leadership development, and diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Learn more at donaldthompson.com.

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