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Success with compassionate and clear leadership

How can leaders implement tough decisions in a humane way? A recent, comprehensive study by Harvard Business Review shows, that those who separate tough management from being a good person are on the losing side. Compassionate and clear leaders, on the other hand, achieve 20% higher job performance, four times higher job satisfaction, and twice as much commitment in their workforce. Four approaches line out, how to train in compassionate and clear leadership.

In times when bragging and showing off counts, when excessive power struggles and greed are part of the daily routine, there is a ray of hope: According to a recent Harvard Business Review study, shifting the paradigm from self-centered, self-optimizing management to wise, compassionate leadership leads to success. What’s more, data from more than 350 C-level interviews and surveys of more than 15,000 managers and 150,000 employees show that clear and compassionate leaders get 20% higher performance from their employees, generate four times higher job satisfaction, and twice as much commitment from their employees to the company. That is a tremendous success.

Neither sugar-sweet nor ice-cold

How can we as leaders develop both compassionate and clear leadership? To say it in advance: Compassion and clarity go together; one without the other is toothless, respectively harsh, and does not lead to success. To lead compassionately is to lead in a humane way and thus to master the art of communicating hard things clearly yet caringly. What I don’t mean at all is to give one’s own leadership a softener and to sugar-coat one’s actions. It is neither excessive clarity that comes across as sharp, cold and hurtful. It is about the combination of compassion and clarification. In this way, we dissolve a possible gap in our imagination: As a private person I may be kind, but in business it is necessary to show toughness and strap on our armor. The comprehensive HBR study proves that we are on the wrong track with such a conviction. Truly successful leaders live humanity as an natural expression of their leadership.

Four approaches to compassionate and clear leadership

1. Create quality time

It all starts with successful self-leadership. When we ourselves learn to set coherent priorities and create quality time for ourselves, we will experience a clarifying and centering effect on ourselves, as well as it will radiate throughout the entire organization in setting priorities right. The following questions support our quality time:

  • How and when do I schedule short periods of presence (time to be instead of time to do) during the day to be fresh and centered for the next session?
  • What kind of short ritual (e.g., three conscious breaths) transforms the start of my meeting so that everyone is more present?
  • When do I plan strategic quality time to reflect on the things that really matter?

2. Meet your insecurities and strengthen your heart qualities

Since compassionate and clear leadership encompasses the whole person, we cannot avoid addressing our heart qualities. This is a dangerous, hard-to-control territory, as most of us are very much in the head. However, if we want to inspire others comprehensively, if we as leaders want to engage others holistically, to bind them to us and to the company, we cannot avoid unleashing our emotional qualities. Instead of rationalizing or ignoring stressful feelings such as anger, frustration, envy, loss or grief, we need to confront them. This formula may help to cope with them: Face it, feel it, own it, express it, handle it. This training in emotional competence cannot be practiced on a computer, but requires a sparring partner. The changes that result from such a leadership coaching continue to amaze me since years.

3. Call a spade a spade

For fear of hurting others or because we feel embarrassed, we keep things under wraps in arguments and shy away from calling things by their names. This not only makes cooperation more difficult because we don’t know where we stand with the other person. If we beat around the bush, it also reduces productivity. So how to call a spade a spade on difficult things without offending others? Here’s a simple guide:

  • Prepare carefully for the conversation and make sure your motivation intends clarification and is not intended to blame, punish or being self-righteous
  • Start the conversation with the key point
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and explore how the person feels about it
  • Offer options
  • Ensure a follow-up

4. Provide transparency and care

The more transparently we inform those around us about ourselves and developments in the company, the better others can understand our actions and the more security we can offer them. Transparency pays off in terms of save space. So we can ask ourselves: What channels do we use to communicate corporate decisions and their backgrounds? And where do we create space for discussions with questions and answers?

In order to build a bridge to the first path “create quality time for yourself”, the next step is to create quality time with and for others:

  • Which team needs more presence and opportunities for dialogue?
  • Which personalities act as self-starters or silent creators in the background and need attention?
  • Who is going through a crisis and needs support?
  • Which relationship is on an unstable foundation and needs nurturing?

The first two ways of quality time and dealing with uncertainty probably apply to most leaders. The latter two paths depend on our personality: A dominant and confident leader may need to practice less “call a spade a spade” but certainly “live care.” An empathic leader, on the other hand, should practice less “treat others gently” and more “take a clear stand”. Independently of our personality we can take a cue from Nelson Mandala, who sums it up: “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”


Compassionate Leadership – How to do hard things in a humane way. Rasmus Hougaard & Jacqueline Carter. Harvard Business Review 2022.

compassionate leadership, success