Education competencies: Compassion

This competency is one in a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, can help lead to professional success. View all competencies.


Genuinely cares about people; is concerned with their academic and non-academic problems; is available and ready to help; demonstrates real empathy with the joys and pains of others.

Proficiency level

Level 1: BasicLevel 2: IntermediateLevel 3: AdvancedLevel 4: Expert
Shows a healthy concern for othersCares about how those around him/her are doingMakes a point to understand a person's personal situationRegarded as not having a selfish bone in his/her body
Fairly good at understanding feelings, emotionsGood at picking up other people's feelingsCan articulate the joys and pains of othersRemarkable ability to put himself/herself in other people's shoes
Spots the needs of othersSupportive during timesThinks of others' needs firstSought out by others because of his/her empathy, compassion
Tries to help when people approach with a problemPuts others' needs first when necessaryNever hesitates to go the extra mile to help another personHas an instinct for detecting the joys and pains in others

Overdoing compassion

  • May smooth over conflict in the interest of harmony
  • May not be tough enough in the face of malingerers and may make too many concessions
  • May get so close to people that objectivity is affected
  • May have trouble with close calls on people

Essential questions

To improve your proficiency, ask yourself the following questions on a regular basis:
  • In what situations am I particularly attuned to people's joys and pains?
  • When have I been the recipient of someone else's compassion?
  • Over the last week, can I think of at least one instance where showing more compassion would have improved the outcome of the situation?
  • In what situations am I most likely to "lead" with my own self-interest? What would it take to set aside my self-interest in those situations?
  • Who have I observed over the last year that's particularly compassionate? What can I learn from him/her?
  • What beliefs do I carry around that may be affecting my level of compassion for others?
To avoid overdoing compassion, ask yourself:
  • Does my sensitivity toward others sometimes take precedent over the task or job at hand?
  • Do I sometimes lose objectivity because I'm wrapped up in the emotions and feelings of others?
  • Do I avoid necessary conflict because my instincts to be compassionate are so strong?

Interview questions

  • Describe a time when you were responsible for eliminating jobs or letting something go. How did you deal with it? What was the outcome? Would you change something if you had to do it again?
  • Tell me about a time when you helped a close friend who was going through very tough times. How did you approach the situation? What kept you involved?
  • Describe a time when you gave up something important to you to help someone else. How did you decide to approach it this way? What have you learned from this situation that you might use again in the future?
  • Tell me about a time when you learned to get along with someone you found to be a very difficult person. What changed? What do you now know about this person that you perhaps did not know at the outset of your relationship?

Learning on the job

Learning on your own: These self-development remedies will help you build your skill(s).
  • Compassion is understanding. A primary reason for problems with compassion is that you don't know how to deal with strong feelings and appear distant or uninterested. Simply imagine how you would feel in this situation and respond with that. Tell him/her how sorry you are this has happened or has to be dealt with.
  • Compassion is sometimes just listening. Sometimes people just need to talk it out. Compassion is quiet listening. Nod and maintain eye contact to indicate listening.
  • Compassion is not always advice. Don't offer advice unless asked. Indicate support through listening and a helpful gesture. There will be time for advice when the situation isn't so emotionally charged.
  • Study the three most compassionate people you know or know of: Pick one at work, one off work, and one notable figure (such as Mother Teresa). What do they do that you don't? Can you translate any of these learnings into compassion for yourself?
  • Compassion is not therapy or counseling. Let people say what's on their mind without saying anything other than you know they're upset. Don't judge. Don't advise.
  • Compassion isn't judgment or agreement. Be candid with yourself. Is there a group or groups you don't like or are uncomfortable with? Do you judge individual members of that group without really knowing if your stereotype is true? Most of us do.

    Avoid putting groups in buckets. Many of us bucket groups as friendly or unfriendly; good or bad; like me or not like me. Once we do, we generally don't show as much compassion towards them and may question their motives.

    Listen. Even though this tip may seem obvious, many of us tune out when dealing with difficult or not well-understood groups, or reject what they're saying before they say it. Just listen. Mentally summarize their views, and see if you can figure out what they want from what they say and mean.
  • If someone attacks you for not being compassionate, rephrase it as an attack on the problem/issue. In response to unreasonable proposals, attacks, or a non-answer to a question, you can always say nothing but acknowledge that you heard what they said.
Learning from develop-in-place assignments: These part-time develop-in-place assignments will help you build your skill(s).
  • Manage the outplacement of a group of people.
  • Work on a team that's deciding whom to keep and whom to let go in a layoff, shutdown, delayering, or merger.
  • Represent to higher management the concerns of a group of nonexempt, clerical, or administrative employees to seek resolution of a difficult issue.
  • Join a self-help or support group.
  • Work for a year or more with a charitable organization.
  • Work on an affirmative action plan for the organization and present it to management for approval.
  • Do a study of failed executive in your organization, including interviewing people still with the organization who knew or worked with them, and report the findings to top management.
  • Coach a children's sports team.
  • Manage the assigning/allocating of office space in a contested situation.
Learning more from your plan: These additional remedies will help make this development plan more effective for you.
Who exemplifies how to do whatever your need is? Who, for example, personifies decisiveness or compassion or strategic agility? Think more broadly than your current job and colleagues. For example, clergy, friends, spouses, or community leaders are also good sources for potential models. Select your models not on the basis of overall excellence or likeability, but on the basis of the one towering strength (or glaring weakness) you are interested in. Even people who are well thought of usually have only one or two towering strengths (or glaring weaknesses). Ordinarily, you won't learn as much from the whole person as you will from one characteristic.
Learning from observing others
Observe others. Find opportunities to observe without interacting with your model. This enables you to objectively study the person, note what he/she is doing or not doing, and compare that with what you would typically do in a similar situation. Many times you can learn more by watching than asking. Your model may not be able to explain what he/she does or may be an unwilling teacher.

Recommended readings

  • Autry, James A. The Art of Caring Leadership.New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991.
  • Birx, Ellen. Healing Zen: Awakening to Life of Wholeness and Compassion While Caring for Yourself and Others.New York: Viking Press, 2002.
  • Brantley, Jeffrey, and Jon Kabat-Zinn. Calming Your Anxious Mind: How Mindfulness and Compassion Can Free You From Anxiety, Fear, and Panic.Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2003.
  • Brehony, Kathleen A. Ordinary Grace—An Examination of the Roots of Compassion, Altruism, and Empathy.New York: Riverhead Books, 1999.
  • Dalai Lama. An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life.New York: Back Bay Books, 2002.
  • Hagen, Susan, and Mary Carouba. Women at Ground Zero: Stories of Courage and Compassion.New York: Alpha Books, 2002.
  • Hopkins, Jeffrey, Ph.D., and Dalai Lama. Cultivating Compassion: A Buddhist Perspective.New York: Broadway Books, 2002.
  • Lewin, Roger, and Birute Regine. Weaving Complexity and Business: Engaging the Soul at Work.New York: Texere, 2001.
  • Maxwell, John C. The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader: Becoming the Person Others Will Want to Follow.London: Thomas Nelson, 1999.
  • Noer, David M. Healing the Wounds.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1993.
  • Oliner, Samuel P. Do Unto Others: Extraordinary Acts of Ordinary People.Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003.
  • Patterson, Kerry, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler, and Stephen R. Covey. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.New York: McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books, 2002.
  • Roosevelt, Franklin D., Russell D. Buhite, and David W. Levy (Eds.). FDR's Fireside Chats.Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
  • Sebba, Anne. Mother Teresa, 1910–1997, Beyond the Image.New York: Doubleday, 1997.
  • Stone, Douglas. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.New York: Penguin Books, 2000.
  • Wuthnow, Robert. Acts of Compassion—Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves.Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Next steps

Copyright © 1992, 1996, 2001-2003 by Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This work is derived from the LEADERSHIP ARCHITECT® Competency Library developed and copyrighted by Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo for Lominger Limited, Inc.

This competency is one in a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, can help lead to professional success.
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