The Only Safe Assumption in 2021: We Need Compassionate Leadership

From work-life balance to developing capabilities, the best leaders are defining kindness differently.

Goodbye 2020. The year that tested humanity like no other this century. The year that took experiences away from us and gave us others we might never have imagined, some of which we undoubtedly would like to “return to sender.” At Prophet, like everyone, our working world was transformed in a matter of weeks. Then the weeks turned to months and, still incredibly busy with client work, we crawled to the end of the year wanting to put 2020 firmly behind us.

And so, it’s hello 2021 … when our true hope is that the discovery and roll-out of vaccines around the world will make this year a better one and that many of the things we crave – like social interaction with colleagues and working with our clients in person – will return.

While we can be optimistic, the watershed moment has not yet arrived. The new variant of COVID-19 is threatening the stability of many health systems around the world and countries are pressing the “lockdown” button once again.

“In an era where change is constant, there is one truth that is unchanging – this moment calls for “intentional caring” or what we might simply call compassion.”

Heading into the new year, you’re likely to have plans you’re ready to execute or develop. These are formed by a set of assumptions – goals you are trying to achieve and an understanding of your organization. But in an era where change is constant, there is one truth that is unchanging – this moment calls for “intentional caring” or what we might simply call compassion.

The response of leadership has been a key source – or otherwise – of resilience for any organization navigating through the last 12 months. Our global research in 2020, which was in the field as parts of the world started to battle the pandemic, revealed the key attributes for transformational leadership: inviting many voices, combining agility with curiosity, empathy for the employee, bringing others along the journey, staying the course with a growth mindset and prioritizing substance over “spin.” These attributes are foundational to developing into a compassionate leader and leading with empathy and compassion will not only help you strengthen your assumptions, but also ensure that whatever action you take supports your people who need it now more than ever.

Triggered by the global pandemic and social justice movements, we published our view on a set of change accelerations – “slingshot effects” – that organizations need to recognize and work with going forward to build resilience and that leaders should embrace to cultivate compassion.

As we reflect on the ongoing uncertainty at the start of 2021, we see a subset of these shifts as particularly compassionate – and they, in turn, elevate the need for a particular leadership response:

1. Work/Life Balance > Making Life Work

Companies need to move deliberately beyond questions of where people work to be more intentional about how people work to ensure their lives work. As lockdowns continue, learnings from 2020 have to be grasped, but also sustained into a recognition of the whole lives of every employee.

2. Command & Control > Empower the Edge

Achieving organizational resiliency requires changing the way we think about governance, roles and decision rights. We had to respond at speed when the pandemic struck in 2020 – and many organizations have hardwired the changes made then into their operating models. Many others have not, however, and will continue to be challenged in 2021 if this is not addressed.

3. Development by Default > Development by Design

The last year has revealed significant capability gaps in most organizations, such as capabilities required for rapid cross-functional and agile work; customer-centric product, service and experience management; and data-driven decision making. Companies will need to be deliberate in identifying their biggest gaps to be filled and building robust learning programs now to develop capabilities starting with critical functions.

4. Physical Serendipity > Virtual Serendipity

After months of distancing and restrictions to our day to day lives, employees are finding themselves bereft of personal interaction and a source of inspiration. They desperately need ways to create virtual “water cooler” moments both large and small — ways of forging chance connections amongst individuals as well as across teams and business lines.

5. Change as a Journey > Change as a Flow

Embracing change as a flow starts at the top — resetting the purpose to be that of an enduring journey and embracing change as a core competency of your organization and leadership.


When leaders lead with compassion, they are alive to the needs of others – they recognize and feel individual context – and remain non-judgmental through their efforts to understand and take action to make a difference. Every one of the identified traits from our research drives to this outcome and focusing on these shifts can show your organization and employees that you are ready to tackle whatever is to come with them, not forcing change upon them. 2020 made it clear that compassionate leadership needs to be brought explicitly to the forefront of the leadership agenda in order to successfully navigate 2021 and shape a better future.