Compassionate Leadership In a Contentious Climate

Leaders today face unique challenges in a world of increasing contention, stress, and anxiety.  A recent report by the American Psychological Association noted that more than 8 in 10 Americans reported feeling emotions related to stress – the most common being anxiety, sadness, and anger. 81% report significant stress about the future of our country, 80% about the pandemic, 74% about political unrest, and 72% about the political climate.  

Outside of the typical stresses that organizations face – deadlines, projects, budget issues, etc. – the added stress of social issues, COVID, politics, and other concerns all have contributed to create a complex environment for organizational leaders. 

How do leaders successfully manage leading their organizations through these challenges? In this climate, it is imperative that leaders adopt an authentic, relationship based leadership model which compassionately seeks to engage people at the interpersonal level and builds trust through time, transparency, and tact.

As John Maxwell noted, great leadership is built on a foundation of trust. And in the chaos and disarray of an organization in crisis, what brings calm and unity to the organization is when the stakeholders believe in and trust the leadership to walk them through the turmoil.  So, how do organizational leaders build trust?

Leaders Build Trust with Time

First and foremost, leaders build trust with time – time understood in two unique ways:  first, in the sense of longevity, and second, in the sense of “being with.”  Building trust with the people in your organization takes both consistency and co-presence.  

Longevity can be both blessing and curse depending upon a leader’s interpersonal and organizational competence and skill. We all understand that in time, people get to know a person and what kind of leader they are.  If a person is inauthentic, has major areas of incompetence, and lacks integrity, people eventually see it. With time, the real you comes out – both the positives and the negatives.  Great leaders who do good for their people over time build relational capital and a foundation of confidence and security.  

Additionally, leaders can actually give their time to the people in their organization – to meet with and be co-present with their team. One of the key pillars of great leadership is relationship. Leaders can get hung up on titles and positions, but the reality is that when it comes to leadership, a title is the bottom rung of the ladder of leadership effectiveness.  Title gives you a platform from which to lead.  Relationships provide you with the permission to lead.  Trust is forged in relationships and relationships grow as you give your time to your team.  

Leaders Build Trust with Transparency

The second way leaders can build trust and effectively lead in this contentious climate is through transparency.  If you haven’t noticed it yet, the cancel-culture we live in has no mercy for abuse of power or for organizations that try to use manipulation, power, and even money and buy-outs to cover-up organizational “sins.”  Leaders can no longer hide the sins and injustices of the organization behind the doors of authority and power. The media environment almost assures that the secrets will get out.  

Authentic leadership demands transparency, which is nothing less than being open with stakeholders about your plans, decisions, and challenges – both good and bad. When it’s bad – acknowledge it.  When you’ve blown it – admit it. When times are tough – share it.  When you face tough challenges, tough decisions, and tough organizational choices, be transparent about it.  

Leadership transparency does three things for an organization:  

  • It builds trust – As leaders are transparent about organizational challenges, people begin to realize that they will not hide difficult truths. Consistent honesty and transparency is the antidote to a culture of suspicion and fear.
  • It creates unity – when everyone sees and understands the challenges, it helps to forge greater unity within the organization to face the challenges together.
  • It prepares people for the future – having transparent and truthful conversations on the state of the organization helps people to prepare themselves when difficult decisions have to be made.

Leaders Build Trust with Tact

Transparency is important, but transparency must be connected with wisdom. Obviously, a leader can’t be brutally honest all the time. In saying that I don’t mean not being honest, but the word to focus on when it comes to tact is the word “brutally.”  

Tact is adroitness and sensitivity in dealing with others and with difficult situations. It comes from the Latin word Tactus – meaning a sense of touch.  In other words, leaders have to have the right “touch” in their communication, decisions, actions, and relationships.  

One way to think about tact comes from an ancient Greek concept called phronesis. Phronesis is translated as practical wisdom or making wise choices in action. Phronesis is a type of wisdom that is different from theoretical wisdom, technical knowledge, or business acumen.  It is a wisdom that is associated with action – making wise choices in active situations.  

Phronesis is knowing the limits of transparency – saying and being transparent in the particular situation without saying something out of bounds. Phronesis is speaking truthfully with wisdom to a team member to do good for them without trying to manipulate them or fool them. Phronesis is about doing good, doing right, and making wise decisions and choices in the unique situations a leader finds themselves in every day.

Leaders without tact say stupid things, abuse team members, make dumb decisions, and erode any trust that team members might have had in their leadership. Leaders gain Phronesis through experience and interpersonal competency – we might even consider it a marker of the emotionally intelligent leader.


The contentious environment we find ourselves in demands that leaders don’t simply adjust course to accommodate each new crisis as it appears, but that they recognize a new paradigm of leadership and adopt a more compassionate, authentic, and interpersonal model that builds trust. Leaders who operate under this model learn to take time, to be transparent, and to use tact in their relationships. This ultimately builds trust and enables a leader to successfully navigate the treacherous and contentious environment that organizations now face.