The surprising quality great CEOs share

Mon 06 Nov


In the past decade we’ve seen a profound shift in the leadership qualities expected of high-performing CEOs. While vision, strategic nous, and operational excellence remain high on the list, what we might call ‘soft skills’ have quietly made their way centre stage to become essential elements in the modern CEO’s makeup.

As we mark World Kindness Day on November 13, it’s worth thinking about the role ‘soft skills’ like compassion, empathy and kindness play in our working lives, especially in the cut and thrust of corporate life.

One of the greatest advocates for kindness in corporate life and as a CEO is Richard Branson. As the Virgin founder puts it, “There’s never been a time where the world needs kindness so much.”

Branson is absolutely spot on. Not only for the face value truth of his statement, but also because compassion and kindness have become indispensable means by which leaders can do things like foster collaboration, build strong teams, and bring the very best out of their people.

The importance of compassion as a leadership quality is something I explore in my new book Why I Wrote This Book: For Greater Success.

The power of compassion is something that became very apparent to me when I took over the helm of The CEO Circle around 10 years ago, just as the Global Financial Crisis was decimating the business world. I was talking to chief executives daily through our confidential circles and forums, hearing directly from them about the damage being done to their businesses, employees, and themselves. I was proud to be able to stand by these people, support them and remind them of their achievements and successes even when they were at their lowest.

It was during the GFC that I noticed this shift to kindness. As corporate structures shook and crumbled, with massive downsizing and restructures taking place daily, people started looking to leaders who had the ‘soft skills’ to navigate and lead through this unforgiving and rapidly changing environment.

Dismissed and derided for too long, empathy and compassion suddenly took on a very important role in shaping the new workplace cultures that could handle the fallout and aftershocks of the GFC. The GFC was a form of trauma for many people. It left people feeling

dejected, depressed and unsure about their futures. Acts of kindness became the outward expressions of compassionate leadership.

If you’ve paid attention to the literature on leadership and organisational culture over the past decade, you will have noticed ideas like collaboration and team-building have become very popular. Of course, these are not new ideas. People have worked in teams and collaborated since time immemorial. Leaders have always had to figure out ways to align their teams and ensure that their people are heading in the same direction.

However, these ideas have taken on new significance as our workplace organisations and cultures have shifted to reflect the new realities of digital transformation, smaller teams and transitory workforces. There is great value gained from increased collaboration within and across organisations as businesses seek to build networks and ecosystems of shared value.

Qualities gain in currency as they become more valuable in a culture. Aside from the intrinsic worth of things like compassion and kindness, these qualities have taken on added value because they help us to foster collaboration, inspire people, and build teams.

Think of it this way: warmth softens hard clay. Leaders today are undertaking the massive task of reshaping, rebuilding, and transforming organisations. Leaders with compassion and empathy, who can show kindness, are the ones who will move their people to do great things. These leaders will understand that acts of kindness cost nothing, but what you receive in return is immeasurable. Being kind and giving without expectation is its own reward. Giving is receiving.

This may come as a surprise to some, but compassion might well be the greatest quality a leader can possess in this age of disruption and transformation.

A passionate thought leader, keynote speaker and facilitator, John Karagounis leads The CEO Circle, Australia’s leading exclusive peer group forum for business leaders. For more information about John’s new book Why I Wrote This Book: For Greater Success please visit