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By Wendy Lambourne, director, Legitimate Leadership.

There will always be a debate about which traits are most important for leading in a crisis – but two absolute essentials are compassion and courage, in that order.

For some leaders either or both of these qualities are fundamental aspects of their nature; they are part of their DNA. But ultimately, both compassion and courage are not a matter of genetics so much as they are a choice or a matter of the will. They can therefore be fostered or cultivated in leaders who do not naturally have these qualities.

Leaders in a crisis who lack compassion and courage can blame nobody but themselves. Both of these qualities are within their reach; they sit in their hearts. In a crisis, leaders choose to bring these qualities to the fore or lack the will to do so.

With every compassionate or courageous act, leaders develop their capacity to be more compassionate and courageous. They increasingly become the leaders their people need to be led by in a crisis.


Leaders who have compassion have strong feelings of sympathy and sadness for the misfortune of their people coupled with a desire to mitigate or alleviate their pain. Put simply, their hearts bleed for their people, not for themselves. Compassion in a leader is notable in the following respects:

  1. Compassion or lack of it in a leader bears no relationship to experience. There are leaders who have never experienced what their people are experiencing and never will do so, but who can still identify and relate to their people’s privation. Other leaders have been subjected to similar hardship, and feel very sorry for themselves, but can’t find the same level of feeling when it comes to their people’s suffering.
  2. Compassion should not be judged by the amount of emotion displayed. Some leaders’ genuine empathy is indeed conveyed in heartfelt words or in tears, to the point that they may appear too emotional to speak. Others, equally moved, show little visible emotion but their actions bespeak their feelings.
  3. Whether leaders are compassionate or not is decided not by themselves but by their people, who make up their own minds as to the sincerity of their leader’s concern. From experience people have an uncanny sense of what is in their leader’s heart – and usually they are right.

Why is compassion of such significance? Because people’s need to be understood by their leaders and to feel that their leaders care deeply about what they are going through is amplified a thousand-fold in times of crisis – even if what the leader can actually do to help them is limited. Leaders who are indifferent to what their people are experiencing leave their people stone cold. Truly compassionate leaders, on the other hand, are not just liked but loved by those they lead.


Courage is not about thoughts and feelings but about words and deeds. Courageous leaders do the right thing in a crisis, no matter how difficult it is for them to do so. In plain language they face what needs to be faced and do what needs to be done for the greater good of others. Courage in a leader is notable in the following respects:

  1. Leaders who have courage are not devoid of fear, worry and angst – but do not let these feelings control or define them. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “Courage is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it.”
  2. When leaders are courageous they don’t dither or delay but act decisively. This is not because they know what the right call is but because they understand that a call has to be made. Despite the uncertainty they take a stance and follow through on it no matter how unpopular it is. They then do not let pride stand in the way of overturning their decisions if evidence suggests that they should do so.
  3. Like any human being, courageous leaders want to save their own skin, protect their interests and enjoy the good opinion of others. Yet they do not let these things deter them from self-sacrifice and even inflicting pain on their people if that is in the longer term best interests of all.

Why is courage of such significance? Because in times of peril and calamity, people need their leaders to be bold, to put themselves on the line. It helps them to do so also. Conversely when leaders are cowards they breed fear in their followers. Courageous leaders, on the other hand, make their people courageous. This earns them the trust and admiration of their people.

In essence, the leaders who are revered in a crisis are those who have both a soft and a brave heart.