What can volunteering teach us about compassionate leadership?

Volunteering helps organizations connect with their communities.

Volunteering helps organizations connect with their communities. Image: Pexels.

Teemu Alexander Puutio
Adjunct Professor, NYU Stern
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  • Leadership positions that foster compassion can improve trustworthiness.
  • Encouraging employees to volunteer can further support this aim.
  • Here's how the Global Shapers Community forges compassionate leaders.

Trustworthiness consistently ranks at the top of our wish list for modern leaders. Staying true to one’s principles, walking the talk and keeping promises is the minimum standard we’ve come to expect from our leaders. Perhaps surprisingly, trustworthiness is intrinsically linked to the character trait of compassion.

Without it, our warm perceptions of trustworthiness quickly move to a much colder register of perceived intentions, ranging from indifference to pettiness and even cruelty. Showing up consistently is not enough, we want our leaders to also care while doing so.

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The most pressing problem with the above is that compassion is not exactly straightforward to foster and develop among the typical demands leadership positions impose. In fact, compassion is often the first character trait that gives way ahead of the more urgent demands of the task, as exemplified by a growing number of CEO faux-pas laid bare in the age of social media.

This doesn’t mean that the situation is hopeless. Far from it, as there are numerous proven ways leaders can build up their levels of compassion. Perhaps the most powerful of them all is to engage in the practice of leadership in a compassionate setting.

The Global Shapers Community is a great example of a community service initiative that weaves compassion with leadership by design.

Since 2011, thousands of young leaders have passed through the initiative. During a research project over several years we interviewed hundreds of past and current members, it's time to showcase what we’ve learned.

The leadership benefits of showing up for your community

Taking on a leadership role in a volunteer organization is primarily seen as an act of service.

That is not the end of the story, however. Those who have extensive experience in serving their communities through initiatives like the Global Shapers Community, report reaping tangible benefits from their civic engagement, particularly when it comes to building critical leadership traits.

“I definitely feel like I got more from setting up a local hub and building up our first projects than I had to give,” a founding curator from South America reflected in our interviews. A recurring theme was how volunteering had instilled in them a deep appreciation of community as well as a sense of humility in face of the limited impact any single one of us can have.


“None of this would have happened if I had been alone. We needed all of us, all of our skills and passion to get this done,” added a former curator when discussing a sustainability project that saw hundreds of kilos of waste be removed from local environments.

It is experiences such as these that many ultimately turn into an instinctive appreciation of the importance of service, facilitation and empowerment by leaders, critical ingredients of compassionate leadership.

From a more academic perspective, the Global Shapers Community members we talked to identified all four dimensions of compassion: attention to others; understanding their circumstances; having an empathic response; and taking action to help.

This quartet of altruism is what constitutes compassion at the psychological level, and intentionally acting on one or all of them is what fosters compassionate leadership styles.

5 ways volunteering builds more compassionate leaders

The Global Shapers Community is an initiative for young leaders, but the lessons drawn from it apply at every level of seniority. Here are five tangible examples of how the young leaders we interviewed leveraged volunteering to build a more compassionate leadership style.

1. Volunteering helps leaders create more inclusive cultures of belonging

Volunteering brings us out of our own stakeholder circles by design. Being face to face with the diversity of life, society and the human condition is the most potent teacher of the power of inclusion. What’s more, volunteer settings are concrete showcases of how success depends on the collective effort of diverse groups. Learning to see ourselves as a part of a grander tapestry of society is exactly why leaders such as Warren Buffett have spoken about how transformative personal acts of service can be.

2. Leaders who volunteer will reap the benefits of stronger community bonds

Leaders who volunteer build stronger connections within their communities. In addition to being a source of satisfaction in and of itself, these bonds serve as invaluable sources of feedback, information, and support. They also allow leaders to build trust and credibility by showing their commitment to the community’s well-being. No one is an island, and leaders who know how and when to lean on their community will find themselves excelling more often than failing thanks to the collective wisdom and support of others.


What is a Global Shaper?

3. Practicing patience and humility primes us for compassionate leadership

Humility, patience and the appreciation of one’s individual limits are core components of compassion. Many of our interviewees reflected on how their service was a humbling experience, invoking a sense of belonging to something greater and laying bare the limitations of even the most talented and efficient individuals when working alone. Volunteering is a wonderful way to expose ourselves to the needs of others and our own limitations in meeting them, making the grounds fertile for sincere compassion to take firm root.

4. Being in service of others instills empathy and enforces our habits of active listening

One of the most important metrics that empowering and compassionate leaders should keep their eye on is the question-to-statement ratio and the levels of active listening. Volunteering places us in a position of service, where even the most knowledgeable of us needs to sit down, listen and learn. Active listening is an honest-to-goodness superpower of compassion that many of our young leaders reported developing in response to their volunteering experience.

5. Volunteering is built on shared problem solving, making leaders more effective

Success in volunteering often hinges on collaborative problem solving. The vast majority of the hub leaders we interviewed reflected on the importance of collaborative problem solving in delivering impact to their communities. By tackling real-life problems with people from different backgrounds, leaders can gain incredibly valuable insights into problem solving strategies that are contingent on leveraging diverse viewpoints to the fullest. In time, these experiences will translate into leadership styles that naturally gravitate towards inclusion and collaboration.

Building a sense of community

Corporate volunteering experts, such as Benevity’s Sona Khosla, vouch for volunteering and speak highly of the benefits of compassionate leadership. “Volunteering brings us closer to our communities. It is a deeply humanizing affair. I see volunteering as a form of compassion itself, and engaging in it is exactly what helps leaders become more compassionate.”

In the end, leadership that isn’t compassionate isn’t leadership at all; it's resource management. To make sure you fall on the right side of the scale, there’s nothing like taking action on behalf of your community.

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