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Center for Enlightened Leadership

The Compassionate Leader

  Tom Vona
  Tom Vona
Senior Associate and Mentor

In order to be a compassionate leader, one must be a compassionate person, one who is concerned with the well-being of others, who shows caring and concern when another faces adversity or difficulty. A compassionate person is able to offer a sympathetic ear, show feelings of empathy and understanding to a co-worker or subordinate, and possibly help to lighten another’s load while that individual is going through a difficult time, if the situation warrants it. Of course, while being compassionate, a leader of any organization must always consider the needs of the organization and make sure those needs are being met if someone is unable to fulfill all of his or her responsibilities.

Caring educational leaders create school climates and cultures that bring out the best in people by making them feel valued. When people know they are valued for who they are and for their contributions, they are that much more willing to work hard, to go the extra mile, and to put in the extra time to make sure things are done properly. People know they are valued by the way they are treated. In some organizations, sad to say, the only time you hear from your employer is if you’ve done something wrong. Part of being a positive, compassionate leader, especially in a school setting, is being visible, knowing what’s going on in your school, and letting teachers—all teachers—know that you’ve noticed something they’ve done particularly well, either by visiting their classrooms or just passing by and noticing a particular activity. You may have heard about a special assignment or project a teacher has created that you can discuss and bring to light. Let them know when you see something positive! This doesn’t mean, of course, that you don’t discuss areas that may need improvements, but the wise leader should always look for something positive and begin with that. A teacher is much more apt to listen to a critique if it begins with something positive.

Naturally there are a host of other ways for school leaders to interact positively with individual staff members—ways that can build a positive school climate:

—stopping by a teacher’s classroom to comment on a special bulletin board or student work displayed outside the classroom.

—discussing a student group that a teacher leads or a team that a teacher coaches. Show that you are aware of (and are interested in) what your teachers do outside the classroom.

—attending student performances and athletic contests. Demonstrate to all your stakeholders—teachers, coaches, and students and their parents, that you are a caring, involved leader who believes in the vital importance of such extracurricular activities to the educational program.

These important interactions and demonstrations of interest and support show clearly that a leader is interested and accessible. Such behaviors help to create a climate of openness that nurtures trust. Compassionate leaders nurture and uplift those with whom they work; they signal through both words and actions that they are available and willing to discuss anything at all.

When a teacher or staff member is going through a particularly difficult time, such as an illness or death in the family, a compassionate leader can make a great deal of difference. If the school leader already has a good relationship with his or her teachers and staff members, it is easier for them to share any problems that may arise. Depending on the situation, a plan of action can be developed to make it possible for the teacher or staff member to carry on with all school-related responsibilities while also coping with the crisis. If that isn’t possible, then the leader can help with the formulation of other plans. Compassionate leaders have the responsibility for showing special sensitivity when people are dealing with severe hardships or personal tragedies. Sometimes all that’s really necessary is simply to be a good listener and let the person know that you care and that you’ll do everything possible to take care of school-related issues. At one time or another, all of us are faced with situations in life in which we can only hope to encounter people who will be sensitive to our needs and show the compassion we require at that time.

I was the recipient of such compassion in my own professional life after serving as principal for only four years. Serious illness took me out of school for a prolonged period and compelled me to make a number of changes in my life. From the beginning of this ordeal, my supervisor treated me with the utmost compassion. He helped to arrange everything so that, when I was able, I could work from home and still play a major role in running my school even though I was not physically present. During this time I was made to feel—by my supervisor, as well as by many others—that they would rather have me remain as principal, even in a somewhat diminished capacity, than leave the job. With their support, I was able to serve as principal for seven more years before retiring (though much sooner than I would have retired under different circumstances).

I consider this example of how I was treated to be a kind of ideal case study of one compassionate leader nurturing and uplifting another. If it had not been for all that singular gentleman did to show he cared for and valued me—by never putting pressure on me to do more than I felt able to do, by making it possible for me to take my time in returning to work, by allowing me to work from home, and so forth—I would have been forced to leave that principalship much sooner than I did. During this time he also insured—through his own direct supervision, the efforts of my very able assistants, and the work I was able to do from home once that was possible—that the school continued to function smoothly and effectively.

As a result of my many years of experience in educational leadership, I truly believe that a caring leader is vital to the overall success both of a school and of the entire school district. None of us is immune from personal problems, hardships, illness, death, and other types of misfortunes. A leader must possess the empathy and consideration to be able to deal compassionately with staff members and students who experience loss. One person acting in a caring and humane manner can have a powerful and enduring effect on another going through a difficult time. I’ve come to realize through my own experiences that compassionate acts are both long remembered and long appreciated and play a part in one’s success, or lack thereof, in any position of leadership.

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