Compassion Vs. Sympathy in Leadership

Last week I wrote about compassionate leadership. I want to give more definition to this concept by specifying what I mean by compassion. I do not mean “abject kindness” (McClimans, 2019, p. 87) – a term used by one of the brilliant teachers I interviewed in my dissertation study. When I speak about compassionate leadership, I am talking about expressing genuine appreciation and understanding coming from empathy. It doesn’t mean that the leader isn’t tough or can’t demand high standards. A compassionate leader is capable of fully acknowledging people’s circumstances and perspectives while also maintaining his or her authority. Compassion is often conflated with sympathy and there is an important distinction between the two concepts.

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The distinction between compassion and sympathy is that compassion allows one to trust a person’s inner strength to overcome difficulty while sympathy implies a need for comfort and/or assistance due to a loss or hardship. One can compassionately allow someone to struggle, to refrain from helping out of respect for their own ability to overcome. One can compassionately listen without offering solutions or giving advice. Indeed one can compassionately listen as someone tells them of a difficult experience without offering one’s “sympathies.”

It can be difficult to discern between compassion and sympathy, and when one is more appropriate than another. It very much depends on the circumstances. It’s not always appropriate to remain detached. Sympathy for someone else’s crisis may indeed light a heroic fire in one’s heart and inspire an act of bravery. If someone is really struggling to swim, for example, the impulse to jump in and save them is quite appropriate. If the savior knows what he or she is doing, the act might lead to a heroic outcome. But one must be ready for the task to be heroic. The drowning person is likely to take them down with him/her if the savior isn’t equally competent.

Offering sympathy, help, or comfort, can each be appropriate responses but there lies a danger of taking on a parental role. Taking this stance inappropriately and too often with the same person may create a pattern of emotional, financial, or physical dependency, and lead to an inappropriate sense of responsibility. This sort of responsibility ought to be reserved for the parent/child relationship. Even in that context, it’s important for parents to allow their children to experience sufficient levels of struggle and autonomy for proper development.

Compassionate leaders, therefore, reserve sympathy for rare occasions of loss, such as a death in the family or another type of deep and sudden loss. Compassionate leaders fully understand the consequences a sympathetic action may bring while also genuinely expressing sympathy when they so choose. They also understand that responding with empathy doesn’t require sympathy. It requires an orientation of understanding and expressing acknowledgment. This orientation and form of expression are key to giving quality feedback, communicating effectively, and delivering constructive criticism. All of the aforementioned can be done directly, uncompromisingly, and with compassion.

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