Compassionate Power: Compassion, Leadership and the Bases of Power

Leadership and Power:

Power itself is neither good nor bad, we should think of it as moving flows of energy and information around to get things done. The use of power in leadership positions is regarded as exercising influence over others by utilizing various bases of social power to achieve organizational objective. The impact of power usage can be evaluated based on the outcomes (e.g. more threat for groups, or more safety, more harmony and collaboration, or more competition and conflict). Here we will outline some fundamental bases of power structures through a compassionate lens, based on social norms and context.

Why is power important behaviorally?

Generally, research has shown that power increases an orientation towards action with variable and less normative behavior, free expression and creative ideas that are context independent. More powerful folks initiate negotiations, resist social influence and take more risks in negotiations as they see their chances of success as better than average.

How does Power effect affect?

In general, high-power individuals are inclined to experience and express positive affect, such as optimism, enthusiasm and pride. But power can also decrease emotional responses to another person’s suffering with reduced complementary emotion (less compassion) as well. What might compassionate power look like?

Compassion and Power

While the use of power is ubiquitous in the pursuit of organizational leadership (which could induce both threat, and safety for employees), compassion covers multiple dimensions, affective, cognitive, and at the behavioral level can be observed at the individual, group and organizational level. Given the growing interest in compassionate leadership, and safe working environments the use of compassionate power is of interest, specifically as its use might seem counter intuitive. We define compassion as:

A sensitivity to the suffering of self and others with the motivation to reduce this suffering

Compassion flows in three directions, extending to others, receiving from others, and self-compassion. All three directions are correlated with personal and systemic wellbeing, and higher levels of functioning. Importantly, in organizational context, compassionate leadership is highly focused on collaboration, teamwork and alliance building, rather than competition and friction.

Social Bases of Compassionate Power

Reward power is the ability to grant a reward and might be construed as compassion or favoritism, depending on egalitarian norms within the organization. To effectively reward people, individuals must have an awareness of the needs and desires of their followers, as well as the valence of the reward. Given that compassion relates with empathic precision and emotional intelligence we can assume a compassionate leader would make wiser use of reward power.

Coercive power is the ability to take something away or punish someone for noncompliance. Coercive power often has a negative connotation, but it is part of the tools of an effective leader when used in limited but appropriate contexts. Compassion can enable a useful lens to facilitating an appreciation for the use of coercive power by examining the rationale behind its use (i.e. organizational, economic, individual or group problems, shortfalls, poor fits, etc.).

Beyond important considerations of daily operations and logistics, compassion can have to do with attending to abusive behaviors and preventing bullying in the workplace when needed (beyond ethical considerations, such dynamics are toxic, reduce productivity and create organizational strife). So, with regards to using power, compassion can be viewed as assertive and results oriented, rather than submissive.

Expert power is established knowledge, abilities and skills. Compassionate leadership want to use their knowledge to the benefit of others; happy for others to collaboratively learn from them. Compassionate leaders take pleasure in being able to foster the development and learning of those around; they use their own knowledge to support and help others and in this way others turn to them for wisdom and mentoring. This means that compassionate leaders are always eager to learn and acquire wisdom, as well as empower others in developing new skills and expertise.

Referent power stems from personal characteristics of the leader. It is good to have referent power and have admired followers and is linked to charisma. However, we can only understand this process through the co-creation of roles –leaders do not exist in vacuum – the degree to which others refer to them and follow them is dependent upon what the subordinate is looking for and want a leader to do or provide.

What gave Hitler his leadership power was his appeal as a strong leader responding to the anger and threat of certain sections of the general population. Nelson Mandela on the other hand had completely different referent leadership profile. Compassionate leadership styles are often communicated through non-verbal communications such as friendliness, voice tones, facial expressions, body postures, taking an interest in others and humor. So while charisma is key here, it should be highlighted that referent power can be comprised of very different elements and context.

Information power is special access to specific information. The few individuals holding the information that others need or want is of great value, and while specific/rare information is critical for competitive advantages, giving subordinates developmental opportunities to acquire this knowledge, empowering them to facilitate their needs as well as the needs of the organization give the leader an opportunity to continue their own development plans and expertise along with information power.


The different forms of power effect individuals’ leadership approach, follower compliance, motivation and the success of the power approach. The following three questions can help leaders and managers determine whether they are using power compassionately:

1. Does the behavior produce an outcome for people inside and outside the organization that reflects a desire to address and prevent suffering and promote flourishing?

2. Does the power behavior respect long-term rights (legal and fair), needs and resources of all involved parties?

3. Does the power behavior treat all equitably and fairly; is it rooted in a sound ethical (legal and fair) basis?

Our new Brightsity Compassionate Leadership training program supports individuals and organizations in answering yes to all three questions. Brightsity is an online peer to peer learning platform, which offers scientifically backed programs, with clear evidence for participant success. For instance, the compassionate leadership program which develops and supports individuals and organizations ineffective and ethical uses of power has been shown to statistically significantly increase psychometric measures of:

1. Leadership skills

2.Compassion for others

3. Positive affect

4. Cooperation

As well as statistically significantly decrease:

5. Tendency towards psychopathy

6. Fears of giving compassion to others

7. Fear of receiving compassion from others

Leaders and managers who will take the Brightsity program more likely to demonstrate competence in their work, as well as empower their employees towards dimensions of personal competence, motivated self-determination, and self-efficacy. Opportunities for participation in decision making, and greater autonomy towards arrival at shared inspirational team goals are also more likely for those who benefit from Brightsity’s Compassionate Leadership program. For more details, please visit