Genuine leaders lead with compassion

What are the qualities that make a leader compassionate?


‘Compassion’, ‘empathy’, ‘care’, ‘humility’ — Never before have such words received so much attention. Thanks to the troublesome ‘COVID years’ — a period of much change, anxiety and uncertainty — these qualities have gained momentum.

We all have experienced the effects of the coronavirus in one way or other in our lives in the last two years. No one has remained untouched by the fear, grief, unease and insecurity that it has brought into people’s lives.

It forced people to assess their real selves and experience the dark sides of emotions. During this period of gloom, the role of leaders or mentors became more significant than ever before. Their guidance was required to transform and help control these emotions. They required compassion, humility, empathy and care to do their bit.

This article talks about four aspects of such emotions — pity, sympathy, empathy and compassion. Let’s read a story to understand these terms better.

Amber, Badal, Chandra and Dhruv are four friends, who have just completed their MBA and joined four different multinational companies across India. Amber is posted in Mumbai, Badal in Pune, Chandra in Bangalore, and Dhruv in Hyderabad. Just when they joined their respective companies in 2020, the pandemic hit. As a result, all of them started working from home in their respective cities.

On completing six months of their corporate career in December 2020, they decided to get on a video call and catch up with each other and discuss what was going on in their lives.

After the initial exchange of greetings and reminiscing of good old MBA days, they started talking about their work environment.

It was Amber who broached the topic of managers in the WFH setup.

Badal, they learnt, hardly got to meet his manager face to face, as the latter lived in Mumbai while Badal himself was in Pune. He shared that two months ago, he went through a crisis when his girlfriend, Nisha contracted. Between taking care of Nisha and his official commitments, he was reeling under immense pressure. Finally, he thought of discussing the issue with his manager. However, after hearing about his personal problems, all Badal got from his manager was, “I feel sorry for you Badal, but work cannot be hampered because of this. I suggest you manage your personal problems and focus on work,” suggesting that he let others take care of his girlfriend.

Of course this wasn’t the response Badal had expected, and after that Badal vowed never to share his problems with his manager ever again. In fact, he told his friends that he is looking to switch and asked them to let him know of any suitable opportunities for him.

No sooner had Badal finished recounting his experience with his manager, Amber shared his own experience with his immediate superior, which was surprisingly similar. When Amber himself was suffering from COVID, he had approached his manager for help and support. Though he admitted she wasn’t rude and was kind enough to enquire about his health from time to time, she never really offered him a word of support. All she’d say was, “I feel for you.”

Dhruv seemed to be the fortunate one. He felt lucky to have an understanding boss who allowed him the freedom to work as per his convenience. She did not insist on a nine to six kind of schedule. She was aware of the problems being faced by everyone and was full of empathy. In fact, Dhruv was sure that she understood his pain very well. His complain was different. He felt that in being empathetic, his boss often got carried away and failed to make quick decisions. He could recall at least two instances where her being overemotional had held her back from taking firm and quick decisions.

Chandra, who was intently listening to all these stories, admitted he was the luckiest. His boss was the most compassionate and understanding person. He reminded them how challenging the past four months had been for him, first with his parents down with COVID in the US and then his brother struggling to move them back to India amidst multiple restrictions.

He kept discussing his personal issues with his manager and felt good about it. Not only did his manager share his concerns, but also stepped forward to help him in every which way. Chandra felt indebted to him for using his contacts at the Indian Embassy to help his parents fly down to India. Chandra found him to be an authentic leader who is forever available to support his team members through their ups and downs. His manager was very approachable. Therefore, Chandra had shared his worries with him openly and always received a patient hearing. As Chandra admitted, at times, even if there is someone to listen to one, it works wonders in lightening one’s burdens. Clearly, Chandra was full of gratitude for his manager, who had stood by him like a rock.

Things to ponder

“I feel sorry for you”: Badal’s manager had shown pity towards him. He had only felt sorry for him. Amidst emotional turmoil, this style of leadership does not help and may result in loss of good talent.

“I feel for you”: Amber’s manager had shown sympathy. He had felt for him. Sometimes this may work but most of the time such sympathy fails to create trust. People may start judging the leader as a fake empathizer, and this can derail the team dynamics.

“I feel your pain”: Dhruv’s manager showed empathy in the interactions. She could understand the challenges he was facing and feel his struggles. Empathy is important but often, leaders get stuck in the trap of empathy and are unable to take firm and quick decisions. While mirroring the emotions of someone, leaders need to be careful of not being blinded by them completely.

“I am here to help”: Chandra’s manager is a classic example of compassion-led leadership. He makes sure that he is there to help. Compassion is a level above empathy, where the leaders understand the emotions of their team members and also try their best to support them. Compassionate leaders serve as helping hands for their people in their hour of need. Employees appreciate such genuine leadership.

The author, Vivek Saha is the senior manager for talent management and leadership development at Aditya Birla Group. He has also worked with companies such as Network 18 and Godrej.


  1. People come first . It is creating that space where people can accept themselves fully along with their shortcomings , flaws and emotional ups and downs and thereafter understand others in totality . People want to excel . Creating psychological safety and acceptance, gives them the space to be creative and pursue their journey of excellence and not the one that we want from them . In that safe and caring space , they give us the permission to be their trusted development partners . Thanks for sharing very important perspectives ,Vivek .

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