Leading with compassion and empathy

Leading with Compassion, Empathy, and Understanding

While the world grapples with a global pandemic and economic uncertainty, we also find ourselves facing up to some difficult conversations about how we treat each other.

While we hope that calm heads, reasoned judgments and wise decision-making prevails from leaders around the world, it is easy to overlook the fact that once upon a time, our heads of government were once students in our schools.

What skills, dispositions, and attitudes were important to schools and teachers at that time? Do we care if our leaders can’t remember the quadratic formula, or finish their sentences with split infinitives?

Or do we hope that their parents and teachers (the culmination of their educational experience), instilled a sense of sound decision-making skills deeply rooted in empathy, compassion, and understanding of their fellow human beings?

This makes me wonder, how many future leaders have I taught or influenced? Did I focus on the right things? And is often the case with bad haircuts or dead goldfish, there is always an opportunity to do better next time.

So how, as a busy educator, do we bring empathy, compassion, and understanding to the front of what we do?

These are my eight top tips.

1. Be a (role) model

“But I’ve got a face for radio”, I hear you say, and I myself certainly don’t look like Naomi Campbell or anyone from the Ralph Lauren ads. Not many of us do, but we want to. We want to dress like them, buy their clothes, fragrances, etc. In similar ways, kids and adults look at other adults for cues on what to say, how to say it, and how to act (and it doesn’t even matter if you have a face only a mother could love). Demonstrate the behavior and actions you want to see in others.

2. Be a lighthouse

Shine a light on the rocky parts. Show people in your sphere of influence where attention and improvement are needed. Be careful though, lighthouses don’t destroy people or their reputations — they hopefully serve as a warning and shine a light to a better path. Help people see where they can do better, and then actually help them do better.

3. Eat your vegetables

You don’t always want to do it, but you need to. Vegetables don’t magically appear on your plate either, you need to plan the meal, buy the groceries, cook the recipe, etc. Even if your better half cooks them to within an inch of their life (so that the only remaining nutrient is ash), you eat it. Because it is good for you, and your kids need to see you do it. And you appreciate the effort to keep the family healthy.

Practicing compassion, empathy and understanding can be hard work sometimes. When you feel like you are down in the trenches, getting attacked, criticized, or worse, ignored, it can be hard to show compassion and empathy in response. When that colleague who doesn’t like anything you do, and openly criticizes your every move (and has the breath of a thousand monkeys) gives you a serve during the faculty meeting, how you respond matters. Make the time to go out of your way to make compassion and empathy a focus. Make it a part of your everyday actions.

4. Don’t punch the Salmon

Look for the teachable moments. I am pretty sure nowhere in, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”, did it give advice on what to do when your 3-year-old daughter starts hitting the fish on display at the supermarket. “Don’t punch the Salmon” was all I had in my parenting arsenal at the time as we sheepishly retreated from the mildly amused fishmonger. Thankfully, my ‘Father of the Year’ nomination is still on track, as we took the opportunity later to have a discussion about why assaulting lifeless fish wasn’t a great idea.

5. Stop talking

Talk less, listen more. In the age of social media selfies and twitter rants, how are you going to actually find out what is going on around you? This past year, I was fortunate to lead a process at our school where we involved all of the different sections of our school community (students, parents, staff, support workers, and the community) to give us feedback on our approaches to intercultural competence and understanding. These were at times challenging conversations, and sometimes difficult to hear. But we needed to. It helped us to see our blind spots. As a team, we are committed to doing better.

6. Don’t lecture people

Basically, do the opposite of what I am doing here. No one wants to listen to a long-winded lecture telling them all the things they are doing wrong, and what they should actually be doing instead. Offer advice, ask lots of questions, and be open to coaching others (and being coached yourself).

7. Start where you can, with what you have

The most common complaint throughout education is, we don’t have enough resources, we are under-funded, who stole my coffee from the lunchroom? While no one will argue against greater resourcing for education across the world, most of the good stuff simply requires your focus and energy. How do approach your curriculum? How do you treat others? Is it through a lens of empathy and compassion? All of which require no money, or fancy mobile app.

Finally, and most importantly…

8. Don’t listen to me

Find others who know much more, and have done it well, and have the runs on the board. Be curious, research, read, and try it out for yourself. I love the book, “Tiny Habits”, by BJ Fogg, because it’s call to action is to do something, no matter how small. Eventually, consistently doing something small for an extended period will turn into something more substantial. In four months’ time, you’ll look back and realize how much consistently doing a little bit can really add up.


Kevin Fullbrook, Deputy Director, Al-Bayan Bilingual School

Kevin Fullbrook is currently Deputy Director at Al-Bayan Bilingual School, Kuwait. Having started his career as a Math and Physical Education teacher in a remote Australian school, he then worked at a range of schools across the country, before serving in leadership positions in the Middle East, China and Australia. Having participated in the Think Tank on Global Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2016, Kevin then went on to be named one of 'The Educator' magazines Rising Stars of Education under 40 years old. He is also a HundrED global innovation ambassador for the HundrED project out of Finland, a not for profit organization that seeks out and shares outstanding educational innovation around the globe. He has a Bachelor of Applied Science, Bachelor of Education and an MBA, and is a fully qualified Justice of the Peace.