Who Are the Lepers in Our Organizations?: A Case for Compassionate Leadership

Dr. Kevin Grant, Regent University, PhD Organizational Leadership


This article contends compassionate leadership moves others towards a higher sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. When leader‟s practice being compassionate the individual‟s self-efficacy increases, where they become more independent and productive. This article defines compassion, and identifies agapoa and tolerance as acts of compassion. The author describes a personal experience at the Goodwill where compassionate leadership was acted out, giving physical and emotional handicapped individuals a second chance in life. In conclusion leaders can learn three lessons from the Goodwill; 1) leaders are moved by the pain and sufferings of others, 2) leaders are self-less and become altruistic, and 3) leaders are a shining light to others.


Compassionate leadership is an act of love which gives followers meaning and purpose in their lives. When leaders practice selflessness this seems distinct from the conventional view of leadership. Wheatley (1999) points out the conventional view of leadership uses autocratic leadership to dictate behavior and outcomes does not work at all. On the other hand, organizations which experience transformation encourage open, participative, and adaptive learning systems (Wheatley, 1999). Throughout the organization leaders are seen putting an emphasis on relationships where they focus on the interests of others, rather than their own interests. This type of focus can only come through acts of love and tolerance or compassionate leadership.

Finding Meaning and Hope

Managerial books have failed when people are searching for meaning, and a reason to hope for the future. What these books have failed in doing, leaders can do in times of confusion and collective pain (Dutton, Frost, Worline, Lilius, & Kanov 2002). During times of confusion and pain leaders demonstrate acts of compassion which influence a response by others to be compassionate in the organization. The question is how did the leader reach a point in their leadership thinking of being more compassionate?

It is not in our own human nature to wake up one morning and say, “today I am going to make another person‟s life better, or today I will intentionally make an effort to care for those who are hurting around me”. Our society is naturally driven by a desire to serve self and focus on what we can gain from our actions. This is called egoism. Egoism is a teleological theory of ethics that sets as its goal the benefit, pleasure, or greatest good of oneself. As we reflect on our own lives we usually do things that make us happy whether it‟s to be benevolent or focused on being profitable. Every action is presumably morally motivated, conversely if we don‟t get what we want we are dissatisfied.

To reach a point of being compassionate towards others, Kurtz and Ketcham (1992) contend that we need to put up with ourselves. This means, “We are like others not in our virtues and strengths, but precisely in our faults, our failings, our flaws” (p. 48). Evagrius Ponticus put it best: “the nearer we draw to God, the more we should see ourselves being one with every sinner” (p. 48). When leaders realize this they begin to have compassion for others. Leaders who draw nearer to God begin to make an honest assessment of self and understand their own weaknesses; therefore they can understand the weaknesses of others. In other words, when one recognizes the other‟s weaknesses, it does not make them different but more like one‟s self.

This personal transformation experienced by the leader is called a metanoia. The word metanoia literally means transcendence of the mind. In the Gnostic action of Christianity, it took on the meaning of an awakening of shared intuition and direct knowing of the highest ultimate reality, i.e. God. Upon asking individuals concerning a personal metanoia experience, the individual will respond by speaking of something bigger than him or herself where they felt a sense of being connected (Korac-Kakabadse, Kouzmin, and Kakabadse, 2002). People attempt to recapture these feelings of being a part of something bigger than self because after having a metanoia experience they realize the true transformation of moving from self-centered to other centered. After experiencing a metanoia the leader adapts spiritual values such as humility, love, altruism, forgiveness, kindness, and compassion

Compassionate Leadership

Compassion means to be together with someone‟s pain. The prefix “com” means together with and the word “passion” has the same root as the word pain (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002). According to Boyatzis, Smith, and Blaize (2006) compassion is defined as having three components: 1) empathy or understanding the feelings of others, 2) caring for the other person, and 3) willingness to act in response to the person‟s feelings. Compassionate leadership is characterized by long enduring leadership which makes a positive difference (Briner & Pritchard, 1997). A compassionate leader is one who seeks the greatest good for the individual, the group, and the mission (Briner & Pritchard, 1997). The compassionate leader feels the pain of individuals and seeks to help them reach their goals, aspirations, and dreams (Briner & Pritchard, 1997; Boyatzis, Smith, & Blaize, 2006).

Compassion is often perceived as being “soft” or putting oneself in a vulnerable position. Leaders who act using compassion often times feel they are giving away power or giving up their individualism. Actually compassion is a form of altruism. Kaplan (2000) states that altruism is helping others selflessly just for the sake of helping, which involves personal sacrifice, although there is no personal gain. Research over the past twenty years has shown that yet, in business the altruistic act is alien, probably because business is competitive and no one executive is close to the bottom of being altruistic, and members of organizations view these executives as being egoistic and self-centered (Kanungo & Conger, 1993). Fry (2003) states that spirituality led organizations must include the values of altruistic love. As a definition altruistic love is “sense of wholeness, harmony, and well-being produced through care, concern, and appreciation for both self and others” (Fry, 2003, para. 5.2). Values such as humility, compassion, kindness, caring and selflessness are operational zed by the leader. Altruistic love is given unconditionally after the person moves from the recruitment process to actually being selected.

“During times of collective pain and confusion, compassionate leaders take some form of public action, however small, that helps ease people’s pain and inspire others to act” (Dutton, Frost, Worline, Lilius, & Kanov, 2002, p. 1014). The leader demonstrates their humanity and unleashes a compassionate response which leads to increasing bonds among the members, and high loyalty to the organization (Dutton, Frost, Worline, Lilius, & Kanov, 2002). As leaders demonstrate their compassion towards others there is an absence of any expectations, present or future, rewards or benefits from the member (Boyatzis, Smith, & Blaize, 2006). As a result members begin to freely express themselves and discuss how they feel and find ways to move away from their suffering. When a leader leads with compassion they cannot help carry the aspirations and longings of others. This act of compassion comes about with agapao (love) and tolerance.


Compassionate leadership is an outpouring of love by the leader. This type of love is called agapao which causes leaders view the person as a complete person who has wants, needs, and desires. Agapao means to love in a social and moral sense or a love of the will not of feelings (Winston, 2002). Having this type of love is alive in organizations today, not as Golden Rule but the Platinum rule, ”do unto others as you would want them to do unto to you” (Winston, 2002). In his work on the Beatitudes Winston (2002) advocated this approach by explaining, “The call of agapao love in the organization is to go far beyond the seeing people as „hired hands‟, to seeing them as „hired hearts‟” (p. 9). When leaders adopt this theme they lead with feeling, which fosters understanding, gratitude, kindness, forgiveness, and compassion (Gunn, 2002). Gunn (2002) goes on to explain this love is not a passionate love, nor a parental love, but a love that brings about spiritual connectedness or a sense of community. Love is essential in leadership because once followers realize the leader cares they will listen (Gunn, 2002).


Tolerance is learning how to live with others. Most of us tolerate or identify with those who share the same strengths as ours and most of the time we avoid those who do not. We usually form groups based on our ability to connect with others. In the case of someone who has imperfections we have difficulty connecting with them because we are comparing them to our strengths. Being tolerant of others, despite their weakness, is a form of compassion

To be tolerant Post (interview, January 2008) contends he does not have the human capacity to tolerate the angry and hostile person. Everyday Post (2008) spends time in deep meditation and prayer seeking the power to love the unlovable. When people accept their imperfections there seems to be a special likeness or oneness with those who share the same weakness (Kurtz & Ketcham, 1992). “Shared weakness: the shared honesty of mutual vulnerability is openly acknowledged” (p. 198).

A Case for Compassion

A man is walking on a street in India and hears a cry for help. Can you give me some money or food so I can live? The man realizes the cry for help is coming from a distance by a disfigured man who has ragged bandages and dirty clothes on. The man looks and keeps on walking; realizing the man crying for help is a leper. Lepers are a noticeable group of people who roam the streets seeking money and food to survive, yet people move away from these people because of this horrid disease. Being a leaper automatically makes you an outcast in society. Lepers are ugly because of their disfigured and rotting bodies, where a good day for a leper is probably death. The real pain from this disease is being outcast by society, which is too much for a person to bear. To better understand what a leper feels, think about what would happen if you came home after finding out you had leprosy. You would never receive a human touch again, and your future would then lack meaning and purpose.

Kurtz and Ketcham (1992) use the metaphor of living in a “bubble”. We create sterile bubbles in our life to avoid being touched by others. “Touching each other brings pain and even involves danger, the risk of being wounded by someone we love. But life is sterile, lonely, and not worth living in the kind of bubble that precludes touch. We see these sterile bubbles being created in our organizations.

Organizations are filled with lepers. These are employees we ignore because they are “different”, meaning they have different ideas, beliefs, and view the world differently than we do. Our natural tendency is to form groups and become part of a group that agrees with our own thinking. This is commonly known as identification or being a part of community. However, Kurtz and Ketcham (1992) contend we have to realize we are imperfect beings, and by denying our errors is the same as denying ourselves. We have to think of ourselves as spiritual beings where we confront our helplessness, powerlessness, and woundness (Kurtz & Ketcham, 1992). As leaders “Spirituality helps us first to see, then to understand, and eventually accept the imperfection that lies at the very core of our human being” (p.2). Once we move through this process we begin to accept others as human beings and not lepers who are imperfect. After having a spiritual experience leaders become more tolerant of others and begin to accept them rather than living in sterile bubbles.

Example of Compassion

On the front cover of a local business journal the title stated; “The Top Ten Best Companies to Work For” (OC Metro, March 2006). One of the featured companies was the Goodwill. Although the other nine companies displayed success with employees standing next to new cars, displaying new facilities and bragging about excessive profits, the Goodwill displayed a picture of Dan Rogers (president) surrounded by employees with big smiles. These employees were not ordinary people. At first glance these individuals appear to have physical and emotional handicaps. The reason these people are smiling is because they were given a second chance by the Goodwill and now are living productive lives with meaning and purpose. Looking at the picture and reading why they are happy it was apparent the president had demonstrated an act of compassion, which had influenced the rest of the organization.

In an interview with Dan Rogers (May 2006) he explained the Goodwill had a mythical perception of being a clothing store which made most of the money during Halloween. However, “that is not who we are”, stated Dan Rogers, “we are an organization with a Mission to provide people with disabilities and other barriers the opportunity to achieve their highest levels of personal and economic independence”.

The Goodwill views a person who joins as a “client” wants a second chance to lead a productive life but needs help. Dan told a story about Mary (a client) who came to the Goodwill for help. Mary‟s hair was unkempt, her teeth were black, her clothes were dirty, and Mary would look down when she spoke. The first step in helping Mary was assessing her strengths and identifying what she does well. This led to matching Mary‟s skills with a task where she could succeed. After a few weeks leadership noticed Mary was interacting with her co-workers and smiling. A month later Mary had a new haircut, her teeth were white, and she had on new clothes. Within a year Mary was assigned a managerial role where she was supervising others. With her success as a manager, Mary was able to secure a position outside of the Goodwill, and today Mary is a very productive person in society.

After listening to this story I realized Mary is a “leper” who was healed because of an act of compassion. Prior to being introduced to the Goodwill, many people had passed by Mary only seeing her imperfections comparing themselves to her. After my visit with the Goodwill an analysis was constructed of how the act of compassion by leadership had transformed clients, like Mary.

When first introduced to the Goodwill, leaders stated the client had a low belief system in which they felt they were incapable of performing at a high level. While matching the individual‟s skills with the task the client‟s self-efficacy increased influencing them to change their personal belief system. The transformation of the client‟s thinking is when the individual changes the “I can‟t, to I can”. Prior to this type of thinking the client‟s selfexpectations had become self-fulfilling prophesies.

The key to success at the Goodwill is their ability to increase the self-efficacy of the individual. Bandura (1994) defines self-efficacy as a person‟s beliefs about their capabilities to master a level of performance that influences other events that affect their lives. Bandura‟s (1994) definition of self-efficacy links back to The Goodwill‟s mission statement of helping others achieves personal and economic independence.

Bandura‟s (1994) work explains how a client at the Goodwill‟s is influenced in three ways when leadership uses the act of compassion. The first way a leader influences a client is through the experience itself. Leaders at the Goodwill realized if the client manages through an adverse experience they begin to experience a higher sense of self-efficacy. Therefore, leaders at the Goodwill are willing to give a client a second chance and say you are valuable and we want to invest our energies in you. Secondly, leadership influences the client through social modeling. While at the Goodwill the client begins to observe others who have similar abilities, seeing them succeed. Through social modeling the individual realizes there is hope and they can gain a higher purpose in their lives. Finally, the third way a leader influences the client is probably the most difficult and that is through social persuasion. Social persuasion comes from the leader who encourages the client they have the ability to perform at a higher level and will be successful.

After interviewing and observing how the Goodwill influences others this led to three significant implications which can be applied to the act of compassion. The first is the client gained a higher sense of competence over time and was able to work autonomously without praise from others, although encouragement did help the person with their ability to perform. Secondly, the client discovered a higher sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. After having this experience the client felt more connected to others and felt valued by the organization. This moved the person to make changes in their personal life such as Mary getting a haircut, going to the dentist, and wearing new clothes. Thirdly, the client felt they had a new sense of self-control after working at the Goodwill. Prior to entering the Goodwill the client felt their life was out of control and now with a new belief system and a feeling of purpose the client had more control of their life. Thus, the client became more independent and economically productive.

Lessons for Leaders

After gathering data and analyzing the Goodwill‟s acts of compassionate leadership, there are three lessons leaders can learn; 1) leaders are moved by other‟s emotions and needs, 2) leaders are selfless and become altruistic, and 3) leaders are a shining light to others.

Leaders are Moved

The expression “leaders are moved” means leaders are moved by the followers hurt and pain because the leader has also experienced the same pain and sufferings. As a result the leader comes alongside others and begins to help them reach their personal dreams and aspirations. A leader being moved is the cornerstone to a leader acting out of compassion, although leaders are also movers. By being a mover the leader influences the individual to perform at a higher level where they gain a higher sense of self-worth and confidence.

When leaders are emotionally moved by their followers the leader is saying is I want to help, not I have to help. This attitude is illustrated in the gospel of Matthew 8: 2-3, when a leper approaches Jesus and says; “Lord, if you want to, you can make me well again”. Jesus touched the leper and said I want to”. Compassionate leaders have no problem saying I want to and have an internal desire to reach out and touch others, healing the person through acceptance. Leaders who are moved can be described as ones who defend the weak and comfort the needy.

Selfless Love

              “Agapao which carries with it a sense of doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason, or in other words, loving someone like a friend” (Winston, 2008, p. 1). Scott (1993) contends that Agape is a noun-form of love whereas Agapao is a verb-form of love. Thus, if Scott is accurate we can talk about Agape but we have to live out Agapao. Jesus used an illustration or a commonly know parable that is known worldwide, the “Good Samaritan” to show how agapao is lived out.

 A Jewish man was traveling on a trip from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes and money, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road. By chance a Jewish priest came along; but when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.”Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt deep pity. Kneeling beside him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with medicine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two pieces of silver* and told him to take care of the man. `If his bill runs higher than that,’ he said, `I’ll pay the difference the next time I am here.’ Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked. The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.” (Luke 10:30-37, NLT).

This popular biblical parable illustrates the essence of altruistic behavior. We see the behavior of the thieves being focused on their own self-interest. The behavior of the priest passing by the hurting man demonstrates apathy but does not want to bear the cost of being involved. However, when the Samaritan comes along, he demonstrates altruistic behavior. The first two types of individuals in the story are self-centered, whereas, the third person is other-centered. As spiritual leaders we can view our behavior as benefiting ourselves or benefiting others. According to Kanungo and Conger (1993) altruism is helping others or sacrificing ourselves for the benefit of another. This act of behavior to benefit others refers to altruism as an internal state.

Fry (2003) states that spirituality led organizations must include the values of altruistic love. As a definition altruistic love is “sense of wholeness, harmony, and well-being produced through care, concern, and appreciation for both self and others” (Fry, 2003, para. 5.2). Values such as humility, compassion, kindness, caring and selflessness are operational zed by the leader. Altruistic love is given unconditionally after the person moves from the recruitment process to actually being selected.

Being a Shining Light

John Armstrong received the Guiding Light Award in recognition of his leadership, stewardship and personal commitment to Goodwill Industries of Colorado Springs at the organization’s annual dinner April 18 at The Broadmoor Hotel’s International Center (The Colorado Springs Business Journal May 5, 2006, p. 1). This announcement in the paper summarizes the final subheading of this journal, to be a shining light for others.

When I first met Dan Rogers the president of the Goodwill in Orange County I knew right away what they mean by the Guiding Light Award. I was sitting outside of the Goodwill waiting for Dan Rogers, and I had never met Dan before. Suddenly I heard a lot of noise and looked up as I saw this older man coming towards me a big smile on his face. He was shaking the hands of people, who appeared to be what I call social outcasts, and calling them by name. He laughed, patted them on the back, and asked them about their morning. Suddenly I realized I was in the presence of someone unique. Dan is the president of the Goodwill, and here he was greeting his staff and anyone that crossed his path, rather than being in his office. I spent the next two hours with Dan as he told me his stories of success, from being a senior executive at Ford, owning a professional football team, and other stories to becoming the president of the Goodwill. He laughed when he said most people think of the Goodwill during Halloween when they need clothes. But that is not who we are, our mission is to give the “outcasts of society” another chance in life.

In the gospel of John chapter ten Jesus uses the analogy of a shepherd to represent a leader who is a shining light for others. Jesus describes three ways a leader can be a shining light to others:

  •  The leader makes it safe for others
  •  The leader will risk his life for others
  •  The leader provides sacrificial service

Fry (2005) contends the world is torn apart and we are to share the fullness of life with others. “Satisfying the spiritual needs in the workplace positively influences human health and psychological well-being which forms the foundation for the new spiritual leadership paradigm” (p. 621). Fry (2005) concludes by saying, “tapping into these basic and essential needs, spiritual leaders produce the follower trust, intrinsic motivation, and commitment that is necessary to simultaneously optimize organizational performance and human well being in learning organizations” (p. 621).

Compassionate leaders express a passion about becoming “shining lights” in a dark world where people are suffering. After leaders experience going through their own crisis and experiencing a metanoia, they were more compassionate towards others. In other words, compassionate leaders come along others and say, “I understand your pain and know how you feel”. This is evident when the leader states, I have a higher calling and that is to care and love others.

Prior to a metanoia leaders are self-centered, after having a metanoia are selfless rather than selfish. This behavior of moving from selfishness to selflessness is seen in Luke 19 verse 8 after having a conversation with Jesus, Zacchaeus has a shift of mind when he stated “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have overcharged people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” (New Living Translation, The Bible, 2008). Leaders who are self-centered have destroyed their relationships with others, therefore as leaders we cannot be shining lights in our communities until we have metanoias of personal transformation.


As this article contends compassionate love is a basis for leadership behavior using the act of love called agapoa and the act of tolerance. As leaders we can change the conventional organizational thinking of autocratic leadership to one of compassion. This requires leaders to be more selfless in their leadership, building relationships with others. If leaders are emotionally moved by the confusion and sufferings of others they can move others to a higher level of performance and a higher sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.


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BIO: Dr. Kevin Grant

Dr. Kevin Grant received his Ph.D. from Regent University in Organizational Leadership and spent over 26 years in both public and non-profit firms as a COO and CFO. Currently, Dr. Grant is the Assistant Professor for the School of Business at Vanguard University. Kevin is a frequent lecturer at several Universities in Southern California ranging from Managerial Finance, Economics, Leadership, to Public Administration. Over the last six years Kevin has developed and taught a number of online courses to students all over the world. In January 2006 Kevin’s lectures in Kiev, Ukraine to major leaders on the subject of a “New Meaning in Leadership” was well received. Along with teaching and writing Kevin consults firms developing strategic and financial plans. Kevin’s research focuses on spirituality, spiritual leadership and developing spiritual organizations.