The Compassion Paradox

read ( words)

Effective leaders are comfortable with paradox. They can call on skills and work in ways that seem to be contradictory. defines paradox as "a seemingly contradictory statement that may nonetheless be true." As I study the field, I find many paradoxes associated with leadership. I see that developing the skills of a great leader requires us to work in apparently contradictory ways that are nonetheless true.

I often see my clients and seminar participants wrestle with these issues because they present themselves as extreme and contradictory positions. Many people struggle because they view the paradoxical extremes as either/or positions rather than both/and positions.

One dilemma many people have difficulty confronting is, what I call, the Compassion Paradox ? As a leader, you must be compassionate AND you must hold people accountable. Sometimes I say it this way: You cannot be too soft if you want to be compassionate. Let me explain.

Depending on their personality style and personal experience, most people fall more on one side or the other of these two extremes. They are great at holding people accountable, but not so great at showing compassion. Or, they are great at showing compassion, but not so great at holding people accountable. Learning to work both ends of this divide is one key to becoming an effective leader.

We normally fail to appropriately apply this principle because we do not really understand the two extremes. People who are comfortable with accountability view compassion as too "soft". And, people who are comfortable with compassion view accountability as too "hard". The truth is that neither extreme is either "soft" or "hard". They are simply different responses to different leadership situations.

Let's consider the definitions of these two responses

Compassion - deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.

Accountability ? the condition of being called to account; answerable.

As leaders, we must be aware of people's needs and work to meet them ? i.e. we must be compassionate. We must also hold people accountable. If we fail to hold people accountable, the organization fails. If we do not address concerns, people work at bare minimum levels or they leave. Again, the organization fails.

Some people are comfortable with this paradox. I find that most are not. My personal challenge is this - I fall more on the compassion side than on the accountability side. With conscious effort, I have improved my ability to hold people accountable. It is still not natural or comfortable for me. I realize, though, that it is necessary.

Whatever your bent, I encourage you to look at your behaviors as a leader. Are you more comfortable with compassion or with accountability? Either way, work to develop comfort with the other. When you can choose your response based on the situation, rather than your personal comfort, you will be skilled at applying the Compassion Paradox. You will be one step closer to acting as a highly effective leader.

Copyright 2005, Guy Harris

Guy Harris is the Chief Relationship Officer with Principle Driven Consulting. He helps entrepreneurs, business managers, and other organizational leaders build trust, reduce conflict, and improve team performance. Learn more at

Guy co-authored "The Behavior Bucks System TM" to help parents reduce stress and conflict with their children. Learn more about this book at

Rate this article
Current Rating 0 stars (0 ratings)
Click the star above that marks your rating