Why a Compassionate Leader Gets Results

UPDATED: August 15, 2022
PUBLISHED: August 16, 2022

How do you judge good leadership? In business, return on investment (ROI) is often used to measure success. When you evaluate an employee, you measure their individual achievements. When you consider a division’s success, you look at profitability. But what is a good ROI for a leader?

Since ROI equals results, it’s logical to judge effective leadership based on team outcomes: Did we achieve our goals? Did the squadron take the hill? Did the offense move the ball? These are important measurements, and I agree pushing for results is a primary goal of leadership, but it should never be the primary method.

Here’s what I mean by that: Many leaders focus so much on results that they become drivers. They view and treat their team members as cogs in the machine of progress. They might achieve some success with that kind of leadership, but it’s short-lived. Long-term success requires ongoing cooperation between a leader and their team.

Leading an organization is as much about soul as it is about systems. Effective leadership finds its source in understanding.

Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines, described how to earn that type of ongoing cooperation: “Leading an organization is as much about soul as it is about systems. Effective leadership finds its source in understanding. Unless a leader has an awareness of humanity, a sensitivity toward the hopes and aspirations of those he leads, and the capacity to analyze the emotional forces that motivate conduct, he will be unable to produce and be successful regardless of how often other incentives are given.”

Think about the words Kelleher used to define effective leadership: understanding, awareness, sensitivity, soul. I believe Kelleher is saying that the first step on the journey toward results is compassion. This leads to cooperation, which strengthens the relationship. And when followers feel they have a strong relationship with their leader, they willingly offer their best work, which naturally produces results.

Compassion > Cooperation > Relationship > Results

If compassion is the first step, how do you develop it? If you’re a driver, what I’m about to advise might be outside of your comfort zone. But it’s worth the investment of time and energy because of the enormous long-term return. Before people will cooperate with their leader, they are looking for these questions to be answered: Do you care for me? Can you help me? Can I trust you?

1. Do you care for me?

Remember the cogs in the machine? OK, forget it. It’s the wrong mental image. An organization is composed of individual human beings with needs, hopes and desires. To answer this question correctly, a leader must value people more than projects. Choose to see people as humans rather than resources. This involves getting to know your team members, learning as much as you can about them and seeking to understand what motivates them.

Express the value they bring. Ask how their kids are. Be interested in their answers. Tell them why you believe in them. When you make it your goal to value people for who they are—not for what they can do for you—that will show in your actions.

2. Can you help me?

This might seem counterintuitive. After all, you need your followers to help you in order to achieve the mission of the team. The late motivational expert Zig Ziglar said, “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want.” Quite simply, people won’t cooperate for long in a one-way relationship. Help them to help yourself.

After valuing your team members, your next task is to figure out how you can add value to them. What does each person need or want that you have the capacity to provide? How can you make a positive difference in their life today? When you unselfishly give to someone, you receive their loyalty and support in return.

3. Can I trust you?

Compassion is recognized by followers when the leader is consistent in showing it. This question is answered through the actions you take on a regular basis. It takes time to build trust—time spent keeping your promises, matching your actions to your words, and consistently valuing and adding value to your team.

Growing and maintaining trust takes intentionality and commitment. And although building trust takes time, it can be torn down in an instant. To continue answering yes to this question, consistency is key.

Results are important for a leader. It’s natural to look at the far-away destination and believe the journey toward it is a straight line. But the ROI for that choice is limited and temporary. The best path to results begins with compassion, leading to cooperation and fostering strong working relationships, after which you arrive at the best results.

If you choose to answer yes to the above three questions for your followers, it will be worth the time and effort. Your journey toward results will be set in motion, and if you’re consistent, you’ll achieve them with a team that jells well and is truly motivated to pursue success together.

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine and has been updated. Photo by Shutterstock

John C. Maxwell, an internationally respected leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold more than 18 million books, has been named an inaugural SUCCESS Ambassador. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP, a non-profit organization that has trained more than 5 million leaders in 126 countries worldwide. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek; best-selling author, Maxwell has written three books that have sold more than a million copies.