The First Ingredient That All Great Leaders Have (Part 1)

by | Feb 21, 2019 | Leadership

There is no “one size fits all” leader or leadership style. But there are characteristics or qualities that all great leaders have in common. In the first session of an ongoing series entitled “The Ingredients That All Great Leaders Have,” I share the characteristic that is foundational to effective leadership.

Leadership Training Session Video




Session Outline

There are many different types of leaders, each with their own unique leadership style. But great leaders tend to share a few characteristics or qualities that make their leadership so powerful. It’s what separates the great leaders from the merely good ones.

This is the start of an ongoing series entitled: The Ingredients That Make Up a Great Leader. In each session, we are going to focus on one character or quality that all great leaders exhibit.


The first ingredient is compassion. Why start with compassion? This quality is foundational to leadership. It doesn’t matter what other strengths you have; if you aren’t compassionate, your other gifts will never reach their potential.

I know this might surprise some of you.  Compassion isn’t necessarily associated with effective leadership. But think about this: if leadership is influence (as we discussed in our previous session), then compassion has to be the driving force of our influence. John Maxwell once said that, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. If people don’t think that you care about them and their goals, then your influence in their life is limited.

The Power of Compassion 

Let’s say you are a leading business expert. You walk into a coffee shop where I’m talking to my friend about a problem I have in my business. You overhear the conversation and immediately know how to solve my issue.  Let’s say you politely insert yourself into the conversation by introducing yourself and then sharing your solution to my problem. My hope is that I would politely listen and then say thank you. But you know what is going on in my mind. Who the heck is this guy? And I’m probably not going to take your advice. At least not in the moment.

Afterwards, let’s say my friend who doesn’t know much about business asks if he can share his opinion. Even though you know more than my friend in the arena of business, I’m going to listen to what he has to say more than you. Why? Because I have a relationship with my friend and I don’t have one with you. He knows me, my business, and I know he cares deeply about both.

Or let’s say you are a parent at the park with your kids. As you are sitting on the bench, another parent sits beside you and begins to offer parenting advice. This is where fights happen. Have you seen this play out on social media?

It’s hard to have effective influence without a relationship.  That’s why giving unsolicited advice is not effective. It’s also why compassion is such a key component of leadership.

Compassion is Unconditional

Compassion isn’t easy to practice. True compassion is patient and is not swayed by the actions of another person. That doesn’t mean people should do things that disappoint, frustrate, or even hurt you. But it does mean that you still care about that person, regardless of what they do.

When you create an atmosphere of compassion within your team or family, people have the freedom to make mistakes and therefore have greater opportunity to become the best versions of themselves.  J. Oswald Sanders once said, “The person who is impatient with weakness will be ineffective in his leadership”. He also noted that “Blunders are the inevitable price of training leaders”.  Effective leaders expect mistakes from themselves and the people around them and use them as learning opportunities.

Compassion is Confrontational 

Caring unconditionally doesn’t mean we don’t address mistakes.  Saying that “compassion is confrontational” may sound like an oxymoron.  In our society, confrontation has a negative tone.  But the definition is merely “to stand or come in front of”.

Think of a person who is walking and you stand in their path. Many of you might be thinking: How does standing in someone’s way show compassion? Let me ask you this instead: If a person is making a mistake, why would you keep letting them make the mistake over and over again? If a person is doing something that is detrimental to themselves or their family, why would you not say something?

Silence is not love. It’s actually hate. If you don’t care about someone then you let them self-destruct or don’t help them reach their potential. But if you care about someone, then you point it out. You help them learn from their mistakes so they can grow. You try to help them develop self-awareness so they can see the impact of the choices they are making on themselves and the people around them.

Daniel Coolidge wrote in a letter, “As this new year begins, I am reminded of the mistake I made last year. I quickly, and shamefully, realize that I had never apologized to you for what happened. I am sorry for this mistake and for the inconvenience it caused you and your leadership team. I learned quite a bit last year and I want you to know that I will never make that mistake again”.  

The goal of confrontation is not to punish someone or make them feel bad about themselves, but to promote restoration and reconciliation.  Not every situation is going to turn out like Coolidge’s. We might never see the results of our confrontation. But we still lean into those conversations because we care. 

Notice that unconditional compassion always precedes confrontational compassion. The better you are at showing your compassion is unconditional, the more effective your confrontational compassion will be. Criticism is best received in the context of a relationship.

Game Plan

Next session, we will talk about some practical ways to develop the skill of compassion.  For now: 

  1. Think about the influence list you made last session. As you look at the names on this list, ask yourself if you care about them unconditionally?
  2. Ask yourself if there’s anything you need to confront them about.

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