Written by Kate Billing, Founder & Creative Director, Blacksmith

A 3-minute read

EMPATHY has been getting a lot of air time in recent years but there’s a “watch out” for leaders in a new book from Rasmus Hougaard and his partner at the Potential Project, Jacqueline Carter.

Empathy is an important, foundational emotion for human connection but on its own, empathy can be dangerous. As controversial as this may sound, according to Rasmus the reasoning is simple:

“Empathy is the brain’s wired tendency to identify with those who are close to us – close in proximity, close in familiarity, or close in kinship. And when we empathize with those close to us, those who are not close or are different seem threatening. When unchecked, empathy can create more division than unity.”

The Potential Project team has gathered data from 15,000 leaders in companies across 100 countries as the foundation for their new book Compassionate Leadership which sets out the importance of empathy’s close relative COMPASSION.

This research demonstrates that, although often linked or seen as interchangeable in leadership conversations, empathy and compassion are actually very different, even showing up in different areas of the brain.

Rasmus says “With empathy, we join the suffering of others, but stop short of actually helping. With compassion, we take a step away from the emotion of empathy and ask ourselves ‘How can we help?’.

At Blacksmith, COMPASSION is one of our core values and it’s built deep into our human-centred leadership development, so Rasmus and Jacqueline’s call for leaders around the world to embrace compassion is music to our ears!


We support their invitation for leaders to make compassion the focal point in grounding organisational culture and daily leadership practice as we emerge from COVID. Simply put, it’s a return to the way humans are designed to operate.

Evolutionary biologists have theorized that while genetically we may have adapted through the survival of the fittest, culturally our societies have flourished due to our amazing abilities to care for one another. When it comes to the workplace and employee retention, employee job satisfaction increases 34% and burnout rates decrease by 22% when leaders exhibit and demonstrate compassion.

In addition, leaders that rate themselves high on compassion report lower levels of stress by 66% compared to less compassionate peers. They are also 14% more efficient and 200% less likely to quit their jobs.

At a time when corporate culture is faced with the challenges of COVID and The Great Resignation, perhaps the time is right to focus on developing and demonstrating this distinctly human strength.

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