5 Ways to Be a Compassionate Leader for Your School

Compassion must be caught before it can be taught.

5 Ways to Be a Compassionate Leader for Your School

Children learn best from compassionate leaders inside of compassionate schools.

We try to support those who are striving to make that vision a reality, and it’s working. Over the last decade, we’ve witnessed policy changes in every system we support, shifts toward culturally sensitive curricula, and instructional approaches that attend to the needs of diverse populations.

Despite our best efforts, many educators know that our work has just begun. Most have launched any number of initiatives intended to improve school culture. Yet they remain steady in their resolve to do things differently or better when their best-laid plans fall short. They appreciate the importance of getting this right, and they know that this is tricky.

Few leaders can say that they’ve mastered the formula for cultivating compassion. But those who are making the greatest gains often share these five things in common:

Compassionate leaders access the voices of those who will be most affected by their decisions.

These administrators have deep respect for the old adage, “nothing about us without us.” They are careful to situate themselves beside those they’re leading, as collaborators and coaches rather than managers or evaluators. And they rarely seek buy-in because they don’t have to. Those they lead co-design their plans.

They strive to see rather than sort.


Compassionate leaders triangulate their data. Rather than sorting people into categories based on performance, they make an effort to see the people they serve in all of their complexities and intersectionalities. They take care to document and analyze that rich and robust data, and this results in better decision making.

They also recognize that trust is what makes people willing to be seen. And some prefer to remain hidden. Rather than forcing vulnerable staff or students out of the shadows against their will or overlooking them altogether, compassionate leaders work with liaisons: People who are close to those who prefer to remain far out of reach and willing to advocate for them.

Compassionate leaders encourage people to challenge them.

We designed the Lending an EAR protocol for leaders to encourage equity by asking for push back on their thinking and decisions. They believe this will help them grow.

  • Open a challenge by sharing EMOTIONS about an issue calmly, inviting empathic communication. I am worried that this policy may cause an unhealthy level of competition among our students.
  • ASK a compassionate question by APPRECIATING the leader’s efforts first. I appreciate how difficult it was to reach this decision. I’m wondering if others could have contributed to the process in some way?
  • Practice REFLECTIVE LISTENING by taking in the leader’s response and offering it back, in order to ensure mutual understanding. I’m hearing you say that you invited everyone in the building to participate in the policy design session, but only three people offered to attend. Is that right?

They build compassion from the classroom up.

Compassionate leaders recognize that systems change is critical to the development of compassionate cultures, but it doesn’t have to start at the top. Full-scale initiatives might plant the seeds of compassion. But it’s what happens in classrooms and especially in 1:1 exchanges between teachers and students that make the most difference. They concentrate their strategic planning efforts and resources here first.

Most importantly, compassionate leaders know that compassion must be caught before it is taught.

They show more than they tell, and they make themselves vulnerable to staff and students alike, revealing their struggles, owning their mistakes, and making amends as needed.

These leaders distinguish responsibility, the need to assign or accept blame when things go wrong, from response-ability: The desire to respond to problems creatively in order to work toward a hopeful future. For these leaders, compassion isn’t a practice, it’s a way of life.

Ellen Feig Gray, a certified positive psychologist, influenced the ideas in this post. Do you have experience cultivating compassion? We’d love to chat with you. Come find us on Twitter at @AngelaStockman and @EllenFeigGray and share your ideas with us.

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