Empathy and compassion are essential tools for every leader’s toolkit.

In order to understand whether we are guiding those we are responsible for with empathy and compassion, we must first understand those terms.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

Compassion is defined as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.”

In other words, empathy is putting on someone else’s shoes and knowing what it feels like to walk in them.

Compassion is more like switching shoes with another person in an effort to lighten their burden or help them.

As we continue to see changes in both our economy and in the workplace, there is a greater need for both empathy and compassion to become more prevalent.

The Benefits of Empathy and Compassion in Leadership

There are three specific benefits leaders will see from showing more compassion and empathy.

1. Improved Team Morale and Motivation

When leaders demonstrate empathy, they acknowledge and validate the emotions and experiences of their team members. This makes employees feel understood and valued, which boosts morale. Knowing that their feelings matter encourages a more positive outlook.

2. Increased Trust and Loyalty

When leaders consistently display empathy and compassion, team members are more likely to develop a deep sense of loyalty. They know their leader genuinely cares about their well-being and is interested in their success. This loyalty extends beyond immediate job satisfaction and can lead to long-term commitment to the organization.

3. Enhanced Problem-solving and Collaboration

Empathy and compassion build trust within the team. Team members are more likely to trust their leader and each other when they perceive empathy and fairness in decision-making and problem-solving processes. Trust is a cornerstone of effective collaboration.

Understanding Empathy and Compassion

As discussed earlier, empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Sympathy, on the other hand, is “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.” Empathy is connecting with someone by putting on their shoes and understanding what it feels like to walk in those shoes. Sympathy is recognizing another person’s pain while keeping your own shoes on, and having no idea how truly uncomfortable those shoes really are.

Compassion plays a very important role in leadership. Once we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, we want to find a suitable solution to their problem. And leaders are problem-solvers.

Practical Tips for Leading with Empathy and Compassion

Knowing that empathy and compassion will make you a better leader is not enough. We need to find ways to incorporate them into our daily lives. Here are a few practical tips to help you become a more empathetic and compassionate leader:

1. Active Listening Techniques

How does one get a better understanding of the problems someone else is facing?

They need to be an active listener. One way to improve your active listening skills is through paraphrasing.

Paraphrasing is an active listening technique where the listener summarizes or rephrases what the speaker has said in order to confirm understanding and show empathy.

It involves restating the speaker’s message in our own words, often starting with phrases like “So, if I understand correctly…” or “In other words…”

By paraphrasing we are able to take one person’s problems, and by using our own words, we are able to have a much better understanding of what the other person has been going through.

Empathetic and compassionate leaders understand what the other person has been going through and want to help them.

2. Handling Difficult Conversations with Empathy

In “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, the authors refer to these difficult conversations as “crucial conversations”.

Their definition of a crucial conversation is one in which there is a “discussion between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong.”

This conversation might be related to a request for a raise or promotion.

This discussion could be the result of a disagreement with a spouse.

This could be a debate about responsibility on a new fence with a neighbor.

These are all important discussions we should seek resolution for.

Despite the importance of these crucial conversations, we often back away from talking about it because we fear we’ll make matters worse.

Our natural instinct to this conflict is either “fight or flight”.

We need to take a look at the situation through a more empathetic and compassionate lens.

Firstly, we cannot be the victim in the story we tell ourselves.

We cannot demonize or turn the other party into a villain in our story. Lastly, we must understand we are not powerless to change the situation.

We have a story, they have a story, and somewhere between the two stories lies the truth.

We can start by acknowledging and articulating our own story or the narrative about the situation.

This involves identifying our assumptions, judgments, and the emotions we’re feeling.

Next, we must consider the other person’s perspective.

Try to empathize with their point of view and understand their motivations, concerns, and emotions.

This helps us see the situation from a more balanced viewpoint. And then we must seek the truth.

We want to encourage ourselves to seek an objective understanding of the situation.

What are the facts and verifiable information?

By focusing on the objective truth, we can separate it from our emotional reactions and assumptions.

And it is important to stay in dialogue, even when emotions run high.

By managing our stories and emotions, we can create a safer space for effective communication and problem-solving.

3. Leading by Example

Leading by example in terms of empathy and compassion means demonstrating these qualities through our actions and behaviors, inspiring others to do the same. If we don’t set the example, who will? Nobody. That is why we need to incorporate what we’ve learned into our daily activity.

Case Study of An Empathetic and Compassionate Leader


If you are looking for an example of an empathetic and compassionate leader, Abraham Lincoln should come to mind.

According to Henry Ketcham, author of “The Life of Abraham Lincoln,” the former president detested slavery “with all the energy of his soul.”

Some would say he exhibited great compassion and empathy for those who were enslaved during the 19th century.

The Early Days

On one occasion, a young man who was employed as a cabin boy on a Mississippi river steamboat was arrested in New Orleans for violating the law by being on the street after dark without a pass.

This could have led the young cabin boy into being sold into slavery.

His mother sought help from a young Abraham Lincoln, who sent money to secure the boy’s release and reunite him with his mother.

These events took place back in 1831, 32 years before the Emancipation Proclamation would be conceived.

Six years later, a young Abraham Lincoln had become a member of the Illinois legislature.

He convinced fellow Sangamon County legislator Dan Stone to join him in a protest against slavery.

This protest did not offer any personal or immediate benefits, nor did it directly help any slaves.

The primary motivation behind this protest was Lincoln’s firm belief that slavery was morally wrong, and he felt compelled to openly express this belief, stating that it was important for him to give voice to his convictions.

Political Compassion

In 1846, during his time in Congress, Abraham Lincoln encountered the Wilmot Proviso, which aimed to ensure that no slavery or involuntary servitude would be permitted in any territory acquired from Mexico by the United States.

The issue of the proviso was repeatedly discussed and voted on in the House of Representatives, and Lincoln later stated that he had supported some form of the proviso in his votes approximately forty-two times.

In 1849, Abraham Lincoln introduced a bill in Congress for the emancipation of slavery in the District of Columbia, although it didn’t pass.

Presidential Leadership

Thirteen years later, as President in 1862, he signed a similar bill into law.

During the early part of the Civil War, Lincoln delayed emancipation measures, waiting for the right moment and ensuring the loyalty of slaveholding border states.

Pressure for a more radical solution grew, and Lincoln carefully prepared for emancipation, which he considered a shrewd tactic.

He sought counsel from others, even arguing against his own decisions, but the final emancipation proclamation was his own work, presented to the cabinet on July 22, 1862.

Initially, a decision was made to delay issuing the Emancipation Proclamation until it could be supported by military successes.

It wasn’t until September 17th, following the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam, that he felt the timing was right.

He had resolved to issue the proclamation if General McClellan could drive General Lee’s Confederate army back.

The preliminary proclamation was issued on September 22, 1862, and the official Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863.

Lincoln kept his promise from his youth, and he struck a powerful blow against slavery.

Because he was an empathetic and compassionate leader, Abraham Lincoln was able to see many great things come out of this victory.

The Impact of Compassion

The most significant effect was the immediate abolition of slavery in Confederate-held territories. This was a profound moral victory for the United States as it marked a clear step towards ending the institution of slavery.

The proclamation reinforced the moral and ethical principles upon which the nation was founded, emphasizing freedom and equality.

It inspired many Americans to view the Civil War as a struggle for the liberation of enslaved people.

By declaring slaves in Confederate territory to be free, the Proclamation undermined the Southern labor force and weakened the Confederate war effort.

This helped the Union in its quest to win the Civil War.

The Proclamation had a positive impact on international opinion.

It made it difficult for European nations to support the Confederacy, as they had abolished slavery, and supporting a pro-slavery state became increasingly untenable.

The Proclamation laid the groundwork for the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which permanently abolished slavery throughout the United States.

It was ratified in 1865, after the end of the Civil War.

The Emancipation Proclamation became a symbol of freedom and equality, and it is considered one of the foundational documents in the ongoing struggle for civil rights in the United States.

It set a precedent for using executive orders to advance civil rights causes, a practice that subsequent presidents have followed in various contexts.

Overcoming Challenges in Leading with Empathy and Compassion

Let’s say Steve’s car broke down and he’s not able to come into the office.

You can empathize with his situation, and can accept the fact that he may miss a day of work.

What if he misses 5 straight days?

What if he misses 10 days?

What is an acceptable amount of time to miss for this situation?

Balancing empathy with accountability involves understanding and acknowledging others’ feelings and perspectives while also holding them responsible for their actions and decisions.

It’s about finding a middle ground where you show understanding and support without excusing inappropriate behavior.

This balance is crucial in personal relationships, leadership, and conflict resolution.

While empathy and compassion are key to being a good leader, the emotional rollercoaster one finds themselves on can lead to burnout and emotional exhaustion.

Here are some strategies to help address these challenges:

1. Self-Care

Prioritize your own self-care activities such as regular exercise, proper nutrition, and sufficient sleep.

Taking care of your physical health can significantly impact your emotional well-being.

2. Set Boundaries

Over the past couple of years, this has become a bigger issue with those who are working remotely.

Set clear boundaries between your personal life and work.

Set up a dedicated work space that is not used for personal time.

Avoid overworking and allocate time for relaxation and hobbies.

3. Delegate and Seek Support

Don’t carry the burden on your own.

Delegate tasks at work and seek support from colleagues or supervisors when needed.

Sharing the workload can alleviate stress.

4. Take Regular Breaks

Take short breaks throughout the day to recharge and refocus.

A few minutes of fresh air or a short walk can make a world of difference.

5. Learn to Say No

You might feel like you should accept every assignment and task that is offered.

But it is perfectly fine to say no.

Don’t be afraid to decline additional work or commitments if you feel that they will contribute to your burnout.


We have explored the significance of empathy and compassion in leadership.

We have defined the terms, highlighted their benefits in leadership, and provided practical tips for incorporating them into daily leadership practices.

The case study of Abraham Lincoln exemplifies the power of empathetic and compassionate leadership in shaping history.

Looking forward, the future of leadership undoubtedly involves a greater emphasis on empathy and compassion.

In an evolving world with changing workplace dynamics and societal shifts, leaders who can connect on a human level, understand their team members, and foster trust and collaboration are poised for success.

All leaders are encouraged to embrace these qualities. By doing so, you not only enhance team morale, trust, and problem-solving but also contribute to a more inclusive and compassionate organizational culture.

References and Citations for Further Reading

– Henry Ketcham. “The Life of Abraham Lincoln”. published in 1901.

– The Arbinger Institute. “Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box”. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2000.

– Patterson, Kerry, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High”. McGraw-Hill Education, 2011.

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