Leadership through Compassion

Authored by: Keystone: Shiyang Tori Gu & Jiayue Skeeter Xu

Keystone values service. Leadership is often stimulated through service, and the desire to engage in service is often a result of compassion. Compassion can be defined as “the act or capacity for sharing the painful feelings of another, and the desire to somehow mitigate it” (Marriam Webster). In simpler terms, compassion could be understood as the capacity to share a feeling, and respond in an appropriate manner. The connection between compassion and being a leader might appear vague, as leadership is often perceived as “being a boss” and “commanding others”. However, compassion is significant in the generation of leadership attributes and skills at Keystone.

Compassion is one the Five Shared Values deeply embedded in every aspect of student life at Keystone Academy: Compassion, Justice, Respect, Wisdom, and Honesty (Zhu, 2011). The teaching of compassion is often incorporated into the curriculum and connected to current events. For example, as part of the English curriculum, Long Walk to Water was assigned as a text for English class. It was taught alongside the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The personal story alongside the SDGs helps students focus on understanding individual personal circumstances, and how they are affected by real-life issues. This approach to education is definitely mind opening and helps students to connect to personal stories in other contexts rather than just focusing on their own schoolwork and grades. Many of my classmates realised that they had been living in a greenhouse, far away from harm. Approaching these concepts and exploring these personal experiences in the English class, allows for the deepening of understanding of global issues through the lens of compassion.

During the 2018 GIN conference – Water Scarcity – students took the initiative to raise awareness of the ongoing issues in the world. By the end of the event, funds that would cover the building a new water well had been donated to the Water for South Sudan (an organisation committed to providing safe water and improved sanitation to the inhabitants of Sudan). In this instance leading was not the only goal. The focus was to provide support to people in need and this desire stemmed from a feeling of compassion, and the ability to envision hardship from a place of understanding.

In a practical sense, compassion can bring people on board. If a person, a potential leader, wants to encourage his or her team members to participate in a project, then they need to take time to work with their team to identify common goals. Compassion is also required when people are already on board and working towards their goals. In this case, a compassionate approach is needed as the team addresses mistakes and moves forward. This was echoed by two of our interviewees (Wu and He) who believe that compassion is needed for strengthening understanding and tolerance in the group.

Other skills are essential in supporting compassionate leadership. Communication skills are also seen as important at Keystone Academy. Being able to communicate appropriately when facing different audiences is vital. This was evident at school during a meeting with the Dorm Council. A new rule had been added to the Residential Life on Campus during the time of COVID-19. Students were not allowed to have Takeouts due to the new restrictions. The compassionate leadership approach that the Dorm Council took meant that the leadership showed compassion when they communicated this difficult message to the other students.  Rather than saying, “you are not allowed to order anything!” (which sounds forceful) the Dorm Council demonstrated compassion through their choice of words. This is what they said: “Sorry that you might not be able to order food for the next couple of months, the COVID-19 situation is putting everyone on edge, and for your safety, Takeouts will not be allowed anytime soon.” In this communication, the mutual goal (the health of the students) was reinforced and communicated to the community members. Explaining the reason for such a regulation is to remind the community members that there is a common ground between the imposer of the regulation, and the follower of the regulation.

Compassionate leadership is more than just leading. It is also about the connection to the purpose or the goal of the project and affecting a positive change in the lives of others. As mentioned in the introduction, “a desire to mitigate” the situation. The purpose of the 2018 GIN conference was to raise awareness and fundraise money to finance the building of a new well in South Sudan. The Round Square activity, March for Elephants and Rhinos, is another example of compassionate leadership with a real purpose. The aim of this project was to improve the wellbeing of wildlife and oppose the purchase and use of ivory and rhino products.

Mr. McKenzie as the Head of the School often demonstrates compassionate leadership as he addresses the school; this has been especially visible during the period of the COVID-19 pandemic. During one of our virtual meetings, Mr. McKenzie broached the subject of racism and how this has increased during the pandemic. This is an uneasy topic, yet initiating this discussion was an act of compassion. Within the student body compassionate leadership is also prevalent. An example is the Giving Tree Program that takes place once a year and is led by the Student Council.  For this service project, a Christmas tree is placed in the hallway and cards are filled with wishes for children who are in need. This activity builds compassion amongst the organisers, and also amongst the students who participate. This activity shows that you do not have to be in a leadership role to demonstrate compassionate leadership attributes and support others.

Mr. McKenzie once said, “leadership is a service” (2018). There are two parts to this statement. One being that through leadership you can make changes and serve others as you make things better. However, this statement can also mean that leadership does not always mean leading a group of people, it could be a person demonstrating leadership attributes as they take initiative to improve the lives of others. One of our interviewees shared that outside of the school campus, in the real world, nobody will recognize your title as a “Leader”. You need to demonstrate the attributes of leadership through listening to others, giving solid feedback, and having the courage to make decisions when needed. When you demonstrate the leadership attributes, others will see your leadership through your actions. In this sense, leadership is not just trying to get people doing something, it is more of the spirit of leadership.

Compassionate leadership within teams is also evident at Keystone. In one of our interviews, an interviewee shared a story about a boy with learning challenges. This young man was passionate about student government, with the supports from family, friends, and teachers he was able to be successful in this area. As shared by He in her research interview, compassionate leadership is when team members support each other by completing unfinished tasks so that the project can continue. Compassion in leadership is important, but it is also vital that the participants show their compassion as they support each other. Leadership is not a one-person job; it is cooperation and mutual understanding.

In conclusion, compassion is the irreplaceable aspect in leadership, both in terms of the motive but also in terms of how actions are carried out. Compassion can stand on its own as an attribute, but it has to be present in good leadership. Our compassion often drives us to take action that helps others, from the smallest gesture such as lending a pencil, to something as big as starting an event that eventually leads to donating funds to build a well in South Sudan.


Works Cited

“Compassion.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriamwebster.com/dictionary/compassion. Accessed 24 Feb. 2021.

McKenzie, Malcolm. “COVID-19.” Keystone Academy, 18 May 2020. Speech.

—. “Service and Leadership.” Keystone Academy, 18 May 2018. Speech.

Zhu, Hong, and Shiyan Luo. “Confucius.” Confucius – an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics, Development and Reform of Higher Education in China, 2011, www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/confucius.