Compassionate leadership and Empathy: Just a nice to have or a superpower?

E044_Compassionate Leadership with Guest David King - Image

Episode 044

Sep 13, 2023

Introducing Our Guest: David King

[Listen at approximately 00:12]

Karin is taking a break this week, and a friend of Safety Collaborations is joining Nuala.

David King is a learning and development activist who does incredible work in the realm of empathy and compassion.


I'm thrilled to be sharing this podcast with you today, and I'll begin with my title because "consultant" just doesn't cut it; I added "activist" because I'm exceedingly passionate about all things learning and development.

I come from a traditional HR [Human Resources] background, where it all began a long time ago. I've explored various paths, including politics, drum making, and even teaching hotel management, despite never studying it.

Serendipity led me into the world of learning and development, and now, I can't imagine doing anything else. It's my everything, and I relish every opportunity to dive deeper into topics like empathy and compassion, which we're discussing today.

And boy is that a vast topic! But before we delve into it, we all connected through the Africa Scotland Business Network and being a part of that network has been a delight. They're engaged, active, and genuinely live the values and ethics of a true network, allowing us to meet incredible people like David.

Speaking of serendipity, you never know when you'll find yourself in the right place at the right time, leading to wonderful connections, and here we are.

So, empathy and compassionate leadership - David will help us to grasp their essence.

Are Empathy and Compassionate Leadership just nice to have's? Or are they your Leadership Superpower?

This subject keeps me engaged because it's an endless learning journey. When I think I know everything about empathy and compassion, new scientific research emerges, keeping me captivated.

If you Google "empathy," you'll find millions of responses. Even ChatGPT loves the concept of empathy, so give it a try if you haven't. But that's a topic for another day.

In my view, empathy is about attempting to connect, understand, and relate to someone. We often say, "put yourself in someone else's shoes," but we must be cautious because our shoes and feet come in different shapes and sizes. We can't truly know what it's like for someone else.

That's the first point when exploring empathy; there are two other crucial components.

The first is listening.

Many people can relate and connect, but active listening is absolutely key. Along with listening, there's a quote:

"We listen to respond instead of listening to understand."

That takes practice because it's challenging. I'll admit I struggle with this. I tend to react and respond quickly, which I've often used as an excuse to show my interest in what others are saying.

The other significant aspect that many overlook in empathy is

Suspending judgment.

I need to pause my judgmental tendencies, and it's tricky because, as human beings, we are inherently judgmental and denying this is disconnecting from reality.

So, we all judge, and it's normal. But when we're aware of it, we need to take action.

We're not truly showing empathy if we don't address our judgmental tendencies.

It's a challenging task. Remember, we hold onto things that matter to us. So, when someone says something we disagree with, we often feel it's our duty to react or respond. Some might withdraw quietly, while others become defensive or aggressive.

But that's my definition of empathy, and we've just scratched the surface.

The difference between empathy and compassion is a simple formula:

Empathy + Action = Compassion

Compassion requires action; you have to do something. Empathy doesn't necessitate action; you can still connect from a distance. But with compassion, you must get involved.

This is where some people might feel uncomfortable because showing empathy is one thing, but compassion? It can mean getting physically involved or making sacrifices.

If you delve into research on compassion, you can't escape the word "sacrifice."

So, there has to be something you're willing to give up to show compassion. We often associate compassion with grand gestures or impressive acts, but it doesn't always have to be that way. You might be surprised at how often you express compassion.

For example:

If I'm thirsty and you offer me your water from your glass or bottle instead of saying, "There's a tap; help yourself," that's an act of compassion. It might be a small gesture, but you chose to sacrifice something you didn't have to.

You can also perform significant acts of compassion, like volunteering with organizations like Habitat for Humanity or providing services to help people globally. That's a remarkable demonstration of compassion.

One interesting aspect is that we need to bridge the gap between heartfelt discussions about empathy and compassion and the science behind it. The research is fascinating, grounded in science, and readily accessible.

They talk about hormones. Oxytocin, in particular, is the hormone that kicks in when you exhibit compassion. When you show compassion, you release your own oxytocin.

I like to think of oxytocin as nature's way of making us better human beings. It's often called the "feel-good happy hormone." It's responsible for our feelings of happiness, love, and bonding.

But when you show compassion, you're not just helping others; you're also boosting your oxytocin levels. And the person receiving your compassion experiences a similar oxytocin boost because they feel good about your assistance. Even more fascinating is that observing acts of compassion between others can trigger your own oxytocin production.

So, by witnessing compassion, you're inspired to be compassionate yourself. I adore the concept; it ultimately makes us better human beings. That's the hope evident from my explanations of empathy and the distinction between the two.

Understanding the difference between Empathy & Sympathy

[Listen at approximately 08:36]

We often say it's not about treating others as you'd like to be treated; it's about treating others as they want to be treated. It's about understanding the other person, their needs, and their way of being, and adjusting your approach to match theirs, building rapport and fostering a genuine relationship.

This is such a crucial point because we often use phrases and idioms that sound great, and everyone else is using them, too. But when you examine them closely, you realise they might be outdated, old-fashioned, or simply incorrect. As mentioned, it's about figuring out what other people need and want, not just giving them what you think they need.

It's about asking the person, "What can I do to assist or support you?"

It's a fundamental difference. And there is a distinction between empathy and sympathy because people sometimes get confused. Some may think, "I showed them sympathy; I shared my own story, and I said I've been through something similar." But in reality, it's counterproductive. It shifts the focus from the person you're trying to help to yourself. It's not about standing beside them; it's about standing over them and making it all about you.

This is an essential statement because researchers often describe this as a pretend version of empathy and compassion. The intention isn't necessarily bad when we show sympathy, but it's highly ineffective.

Often, it turns into a situation where we say, "I have a story too, and mine is worse than yours."

Sometimes, it even worsens the situation, adding a layer of pity and reinforcing what the person is going through. We might say things like, "I can't believe all these terrible things are happening to you. Why do you think this is happening to you? It's terrible. How do you manage?"

Statements like these deepen the person's challenges. So, it's vital to understand the difference between sympathy and empathy and how they play out.

We were discussing whether empathy and compassion can be your leadership superpower. If you can demonstrate empathy and provide compassionate leadership, it has the potential to be a remarkable superpower.

  • How do you integrate it into leadership?
  • How do you shift it from being a nice-to-have or a background value to something practical and impactful for your team and organisation?

These questions are something many organisations grapple with.

Leadership has been traditionally associated with control, power, and knowing everything. Over the past 20 years, we've seen a shift in this perception. However, there are still leaders at the helm of organisations who cling to the old ways of thinking.

They might also feel apprehensive about the changing landscape, fearing becoming obsolete. They pay lip service to leading with empathy but often lack a clear understanding of what that entails. They can say the words, just like organisations can display values on a wall, but the key is whether they practice what they preach.

Substantial evidence indicates a direct correlation between organisations prioritising empathy and those that do not. You can observe this in how leaders behave, the emergence of servant leaders, compassionate leaders, and those who lead with empathy.

This compassionate leadership style acknowledges that leaders don't have all the answers. They are open to learning, open to listening, and they admit when they make mistakes. They demonstrate they are human, recognising that nobody has all the answers.

The old leadership model, where leaders were expected to know everything, is being replaced with a more enlightened approach. Science has taught us that we all have strengths and areas for growth, what we used to call weaknesses. Now, we prefer to use the term "development areas."

Both empathy and compassion are skills.

Can you learn to be more empathetic and compassionate? Absolutely.

Thankfully, it's a relief for those who might think, "I'm not naturally empathetic, and I don't know how to be compassionate."

It's a skill, and like any skill, it can be learned.

While some individuals may have a genetic predisposition that makes it easier for them, anyone willing to put in the effort and practice correctly can improve. No one expects you to become a superhuman or the best at it overnight. The more you practice and strive for improvement, the better you'll become.

This also dispels the notion that "you can't teach an old dog new tricks."

Neuroscience has shown that we can continuously create new neural pathways in our brains, regardless of age. While the rate may slow as we get older, we're still capable of learning and adapting.

We're constantly unlearning and relearning things, especially in today's fast-paced world of technology. We must unlearn old ways and embrace new ones because if we don't adapt, we might become irrelevant and obsolete, stuck in the past.

We've all encountered someone resistant to change, firmly rooted in their ways. It's almost tempting to express sympathy or say, "Oh, poor thing," because they're unwilling to move forward. They're not progressing and keep reminiscing about how things used to be.

They might say things like, "That's not how I would have spoken to my parents," or "That's not how I would have interacted with my manager. You just follow orders."

When these kinds of sentiments start coming out, it's a clear sign of resistance to change and progress, and this resistance can be particularly problematic because it prevents people from taking initiative. In the industries we work in, which are high-hazard industries, it can stifle communication and collaboration.

It hinders individuals from feeling included and safe to speak up.

This is where the concept of psychological safety comes into play – people need to feel that they can learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo without facing barriers or being shut down. It's not a productive approach.

Empathy & Compassion are not just a nice to have; They make a difference to the bottom line

[Listen at approximately 15:11]


You've recently been doing some fabulous work in the medical field and bringing empathy and compassion into how that impacts not just the patients but the entire working environment.

What is the evidence that shows that empathy and compassion are not just a nice to have; they actually make a difference to the bottom line?



Yes, most corporates and businesses want to know the return on investment.

It's been a fascinating journey. I think the clients I've been working with are absolutely trailblazers in this space because it's been something they've tackled from the board level, so top-down. They call these things key imperatives.

So it's a key imperative of the organisation and the reason why it all began; a tiny backstory is coming out of COVID, they realised how, in particular, in the hospitals, the nurses were withdrawing from patients, so they no longer wanted to get close, or even to touch patients because of the COVID scare.

Even though many things were put in place to ensure they don't get COVID, psychologically, people were just wary.

They could see a direct correlation between trust, patient feedback, disconnects, staff turnover, innovation, and inclusivity, which was all related to people not feeling connected; they were feeling a bit disconnected.

So, the research around is directly linked to boundaries, too.

Also, Nuala, you will know, particularly with a lot of your clients, how critical policies and procedures and compliance are, and often people in those spaces say, "Well, I can't have boundaries here, I can't say no", or "I'm not going to do that, because it's an instruction, its a rule."

And yet, if we don't allow people to put up boundaries, it's going to lead to burnout, or it's going to lead to resentment.

So, we know we've had a massive problem globally with burnout. It's because we came out of a space during COVID where everything was compliant. Think about every industry in society; we were all pressured to comply with regulations.

Wherever you were based anywhere in the world, there were new rules or regulations.

So that led to burnout and people resenting, and in hindsight, now we've seen many people quitting.

People are changing their entire philosophy on their jobs and what they're doing, and they want to leave and start their own businesses or go live on a desert island because people were put under such pressure.

But coming out of that, my client was right; we need to tackle this and be brave and bold because we're in a compliance-driven industry. But the science is telling us that if you don't allow people to have boundaries, our staff will continue to be burned out or ultimately resent us and themselves.

So that's where it came out of.

And then that started us pulling analytics. Statistics on retention, engagement, innovation, and inclusivity are very helpful. And they said, well, let's do some measurement here, and that's really what they've been doing to see there's been a difference.

And they've been doing this for two years now. And guess what? There has been a massive difference.

So, those sites driving empathy and compassion use patient feedback scores as their form of assessment or targets.

And those sites that have been driving empathy and compassion have allowed their staff to put up reasonable boundaries and to question [there's the psychological safety] to develop better ideas.

There's been a reduction in turnover; culturally, people are more engaged, and innovation is popping out everywhere at these sites.

Something very dear to me is from an inclusion and diversity perspective because there's also the direct link between making people feel they're part of rather than different.

Empathy, Compassion, Humility and Humanity are Important

[Listen at approximately 20:15]

It touches upon nearly every metric out there, has a significant influence, and becomes a fascinating topic when people feel more capable of understanding boundaries.

For example, a single mum friend has been trying to be everything to everyone. She's struggling with setting boundaries so her children feel more emotionally secure because they know what to expect.

If we can help children feel more emotionally secure in their environment, imagine the impact it could have in our workplaces. Often, as adults, we dismiss the need for boundaries. Still, when we experience a lack of boundaries and that feeling of having no control or uncertain expectations, we end up disengaged and disconnected.

It's genuinely intriguing.

In a hospital environment, which is a high-risk setting, similar to high-hazard industries like mining, oil and gas, and nuclear energy, the need for empathy and compassion remains the same. It is independent of the industry because, ultimately, all industries employ human beings.

There's still this perception in many organisations that such concepts are too soft, which is a mischaracterisation because they are actually hard and human skills. Focusing on these human skills from a leadership perspective can permeate every aspect of what we do.

  • We can have rules, regulations, policies, and procedures, but are we taking a humane approach?
  • Are we considering people first, as customer service did, by shifting their policies towards serving the client rather than the business?

In a similar vein, empathy and compassion prioritise the individual. Further delving into these concepts, we discuss humility and common humanity, teaching us to think about how our experiences impact others.

This perspective extends from health and safety to child-rearing and societal challenges like the high cost of living. All these aspects teach us to relate to and understand other people, which can inform how we run organisations across different industries.

There are speed bumps along the way.

It's crucial to highlight these potential obstacles that might hinder or distract us from achieving our goals. By acknowledging and preparing for them, we can adopt a more safety-conscious approach, just like in health and safety, where we don't only focus on unlikely extreme events but also anticipate them.

So, here are five key speed bumps to watch out for:

1. Not Listening and Learning:

It's important to be open to feedback and not dismiss new ideas or experiences. The COVID-19 pandemic taught us that change can happen rapidly, and we must adapt.

2. Performance, Productivity, and Efficiency:

Obsessing over these metrics can sometimes lead to overloading employees. Surprisingly, research suggests that reducing workload can lead to better results and improved employee well-being.

3. Organisational Culture:

When organisations don't align with their stated values, it can lead to problems and even their downfall.

4. Leaders' Behaviour:

Leaders need to not only talk the talk but also walk the walk. Employees notice inconsistencies between words and actions.

5. Lack of Shared Beliefs:

Becoming desensitised to challenging situations can be a sign of trouble. It's essential to maintain a sense of empathy and compassion rather than becoming immune to issues that need addressing.

These speed bumps are worth being aware of and preparing for in advance to navigate the path effectively.

Our Final Thoughts on Empathy & Compassionate Leadership

[Listen at approximately 28:15]

When it comes to our leaders, the focus is on equipping and enabling them to be more empathetic and compassionate without turning into pushovers or appearing overly warm and fuzzy.

This isn't about singing Kumbaya and holding hands; it's about meeting people where they are and taking action to demonstrate that we're not just having pleasant conversations or paying lip service.

We love the formula of Empathy + Action = Compassion.

It's not merely recognising that someone is facing challenges or struggling to understand due to language barriers, cultural differences, or being new to the industry.

It's about actively helping them learn, guiding them through the next steps, and ensuring their well-being by avoiding situations that could put them at risk.

These qualities become valuable tools in a leader's toolbox, setting them apart as superheroes in their industry. And it makes complete business sense.

It's not a "nice-to-have" as some may perceive compassion.

We talk about fierce compassion, which means vigorously defending what is necessary to safeguard. This concept ties directly to the idea of boundaries.

Fierce compassion is about declaring that empathy and compassionate leadership are vital for the future of our organisation, and we will fiercely protect them. The language we use is incredibly powerful.

For those who think compassion is too soft and gentle, there are times when you must stand your ground. Consider it from a safety, diversity and inclusion, or societal perspective.

We have to say, "Enough is enough," or "That's not acceptable," not out of dislike or hatred, but to protect what's essential for the success of our business, society, or even our families.

We love that perspective, and it's a great note to conclude on.

Let's reflect on how we can be empathetic and fiercely compassionate about the things that are absolutely critical to what we do.



David King is a Learning & Development Activist (Consultant). In 2021, he escaped the corporate world, after 20 years making an impact at Damelin, Old Mutual Properties, Ola Milky Lane/Juicy Lucy and most recently, the Mr Price Group in the following fields: leadership development, education, training& development, franchising and retail & supply chain.


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About the Show

Our purpose in sharing this podcast is to have a chinwag (conversation) to help people change how they think and behave about safety. 

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We will explore topics related to organisational and safety culture, leadership, the language of risk, emotional literacy, psychological safety, conversational agility, intercultural intelligence, and whatever else pops up during our conversations—sharing our experiences and learnings. 

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