Compassionate leadership: a key influencer on governance

Our research at CoSteer suggests that ‘…when observing the relationship between governance and culture, we see compassionate leadership emerging as a dominant influencer – it’s a powerful key.’ As leaders, we are all seeking to enhance the performance of our organisations, perhaps not just financially, but also in their humanity. We hear about the relationship between the culture of an organisation and its governance. However, what does that look like in reality?

Date: 7th Nov 2023


What’s the first word that comes to your mind when you see the word ‘compassion’?

Kindness? Empathy? Connection?

People often relate to terms like ‘empathy’, ‘kindness’ or ‘sympathy’, but what is compassion?

Let’s take a simple explanation from Dr. Susan David[1]:

Sympathy says - I am sorry you’re in pain (Distant)

Empathy says - I can imagine what this pain feels like (Shared)

Compassion says- You’re suffering, and I’ll do what I can to help (Connected & Action orientated)”.

Generally, the talk at the moment is about empathic leadership, but should we be actually talking about compassion?

Empathy is feeling with another – we identify personally with the way someone else is feeling. Empathy is hugely powerful, and we know from brain imaging that when you’re feeling empathy for someone who is suffering, the parts of your brain that show activity are those active when you have suffered yourself[2].

In order for us to move beyond empathy, into compassion, we have to move towards the other person. Compassion is not a feeling, compassion is action-orientated, it’s a movement towards.

So, why would we want to be compassionate instead of empathic?

Evidence from different areas of psychological study demonstrates that empathy requires a huge amount of energy and emotion – it’s draining[3]. This is sometimes referred to as ‘empathy fatigue’.

This is important when we are looking at leaders within organisations - at all levels, because if empathy is exhausting, it can and does lead to burnout.

In contrast, when we are compassionate, according to Ellen Agler, “… you learn to be present for, and hold with spaciousness, the pain and suffering of others, without fully absorbing it as your own – responding and serving, whilst supporting yourself with self-compassion.”[4]

If we accept that governance is essentially decision making, and that any moves towards improving governance are really attempts to improve decision making, we need to take a look at the decision-making process.


How do we make decisions?

As humans we think we make decisions by collecting enough data and then processing through logic and reasoning. We collect facts, analyse them, validate and then make a choice or decision…we use our cognitive brain fully to make a conscious decision. Right?

What if I tell you, that's not how we make decisions?

According to behavioural science and evolutionary psychology, we make decisions inside our limbic brain, i.e. the emotional part of our brain. Let’s take a quick dive into this so we can understand the most significant factor that influences how we make decisions.

Did you know that it takes only 50 milliseconds for our internal stress system to activate?[5]

As homo sapiens, our ‘super strength’ is in forming strong groups and the sense of shared identity that underpins groups is shaped by the binary way in which homo sapiens see the world: "Us and Them".

‘Us’ can be our family, our kin, our tribe. To have a strong sense of oneness and belonging to "Us", however, there has to be a "Them".

The evolutionary logic to this is obvious: 𝖲𝗎𝗋𝗏𝗂𝗏𝖺𝗅.

Our hardwired threat-sensing system starts by identifying which tribe others fall into. It's as automated as breathing.

We see someone, we classify them as 'us’ or ‘them' and we decide how to react. Most of these quick assessments are done by our in-built implicit and explicit biases or subconscious biases.

When we see the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ our autonomic nervous system (ANS) kicks in by activating stress hormones and sending these signals to the brain where the conscious part of our brain (the cortex) gets the opportunity to confirm or deny the reflex anxiety/stress. This is also known as the fight/flight/freeze/flock/fawn response.


Compassion and decision making

So, how does compassion help us in mitigating these biases and challenges in decision making and ultimately therefore improve governance?

When we are practising compassion, it widens the gap between the stimulus and our response or the stimulus and our decision. It was Viktor Frankl who wrote “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Compassion widens the gap and allows for more inclusive and better decision making.

According to Michael West[6], “… for leadership to be compassionate, it must also be inclusive. Compassion blurs the boundaries between self and other, promoting belonging, trust, understanding, mutual support and, by definition, inclusion.” This affirms the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion when looking at leadership, decision making and culture.

There are clear drivers for businesses too. It has been argued that compassionate leadership increases staff engagement and satisfaction, resulting in better outcomes for organisations including improved financial performance. – Dawson and West 2018.

Our research at CoSteer highlights these benefits: ‘…when observing the relationship between governance and culture, we see compassionate leadership emerging as a dominant influencer – it’s a powerful key.’

So, if we want to support our people, enhance their well-being, and create organisations that perform well in the long term, we need to develop trust and an environment with high levels of psychological safety.

Our growing body of evidence at CoSteer is supported by others, and we would suggest that to develop trust, leadership should focus on three aspects:

  1. Leading with compassion
  2. Being open and honest
  3. Living your organisation’s values

These are not easy, but our evidence and data are increasingly clear that these skills will support and develop trust and psychological safety within an organisation and that they are vital for leadership and developing high-quality governance.


[1] https://www.susandavid.com/resource/sympathy-empathy-compassion/

[2] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnint.2020.00003/full 

[3] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15487760701680570 

[4] https://www.sharonsalzberg.com/realchange/ 

[5] Belonging: The Ancient code of Togetherness by Owen Eastwood

[6] West, 2021. Compassionate Leadership: Sustaining Wisdom, Humanity and Presence in Health and Social Care. Swirling Leaf Press

Divya Mahendran is Head of Governance at CoSteer

She is passionate about fostering meaningful connections to promote continuous professional development. Her creative endeavours span various niche areas, including marketing, governance, trauma, and human experiences, aiming to facilitate healing and growth within organisations.


Find out more about CoSteer's human-centred approach to governance.

Co-Founder Perrin Carey will be speaking at the SGA's annual conference, Future-Fit Governance on 14 November, joining the panel discussing "Culture, values & creating your organisation's environment".

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