Compassion: The primes inter pares Virtue for Modern Leaders

by Matthew R. Crouch

It has been the privilege of my life to serve the United States as an officer of Marines.  I am especially blessed to have started my service as a Midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy at the end of the 20th Century; what a dynamic time in which to have lived.  My career has straddled a period of tremendous, often revolutionary, change. Yet, in the midst of technological development and the dissolution of many boundaries, the basics of the human condition remain unchanged. Thus, with confidence that tried and true methods apply as much today as ever before, I offer that one traditional virtue, compassion, deserves deeper reflection for its comprehensive ability to guide a leader through tough decisions, especially, the interpersonal ones.

Karr was correct, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they stay the same. Even amidst the shortened attention spans of our 5G, on demand world, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines still hunger for good leadership. Simple in concept, but difficult in application, true leadership remains unrelentingly self-sacrificial.  While the problems that subordinates face and leaders seek to solve today might appear unique at first blush, there truly is “nothing new under the sun”. Resource constraints, personal debt, deployment separation, substance abuse, mission tasks or relationship stress; from Alexander to Eisenhower, everywhere in between and up through today, the challenges a unit faces are, if not identical, different by degree rather than type.

Compassion is not something we often discuss.  I think that is because it has been closely tied with religion (Christianity in the Western tradition) and religion has fallen out of fashion in our post-modern materialist culture.  Suffice it to say that compassion is not so muscular as courage, though it requires it; so severe as judgment, though equally informed by wisdom; and in its general humility is perhaps less appealing to the martial tradition than those characteristics that have found their way onto service lists of leadership principles and traits. 

What, after all, is compassion?  How is it applicable to leadership? Why does it work as a practical tool in the difficult decisions that modern military leaders face?

Merriam-Webster defines compassion as a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it. The Oxford English dictionary expands: the feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it; pity that inclines one to spare or to succour. However, I prefer the definition that Rear Admiral Rafael C. Benitez, USN uses in his book, Anchors: Ethical and Practical Maxims:

Compassion is a heartfelt desire to lessen the pain of another being…manifested when you undertake personal sacrifice to relieve the suffering of that being.

Admiral Benitez’s definition places compassion in the context of leadership. His definition captures both the personal concern that leaders must have for those in their charge, but also the imperative for responsibility to action even to self-detriment. Compassion is about understanding the inherent human struggles in life and taking steps to equip subordinates to both cope and overcome them.

 As a matter of application, compassion is an effective guide for the leader because it conforms to our notions of shared hardship and its inherent virtue underpins the principles that our leadership doctrines highlight. Pardon my parochialism as I draw from the Marine Corps’ leadership traits and principles as an illustration of how compassion can steer us toward excellent leadership. 

Compassion is either fundamental to or enabling of each of the Marine Corps’ leadership traits and principles. (See Principles of Marine Corps Leadership). The exercise of compassion forges in the practitioner all the elements of patience, firmness, charity and maturity which an officer comes to count as wisdom. It is both considerate and conscientious. It has the foresight to demand accountability and rejects leniency where there is recalcitrance. In our modern world it is radical and counter cultural. This is the heart of why compassion might be the leader’s most powerful tool: one can’t fully serve without reservation where self-interest holds sway; true compassion liberates a leader to serve others with abandon and make decisions with perspicacity. In a practical sense, it gives clarity of mind and offers guideposts for navigating the most difficult of interpersonal challenges.

This brings to mind a case of two lance corporal aircraft mechanics, one White and one African American, both friends. While on a combat deployment and working on an aircraft together the two begin to argue over a delay in starting work. In the heat of the moment a racial slur is used. Good order and discipline require the commander to take action; even if the friends can resolve the dispute on their own. But how to weigh the questions? Compassion gives the commander the requisite sense of where justice lies. He picks a punishment that sends a message that racism in any form cannot be tolerated but leaves room for a young Marine to recover from a mistake. Acknowledging that it takes time to mature, the punishment is neither symbolic nor overwhelming, rather balanced. In this way, importantly, the commander ensures that bitterness does not grow in either party and places the onus on the offender to acknowledge fault and take steps to improve.

Justice and Judgment

Considering justice without compassion the leader cannot begin to be fair. Using compassion as the basis for determining how we administer punishment or dole out tasks is requisite for achieving justice. As the wellspring of mercy, it imparts both balance and empathy and we see this most clearly in the context of non-judicial punishment. In this too, we observe that judgment, to be proper, must also rely upon compassion.  I don’t think you can overemphasize the importance of bringing compassion into the calculus for doling out punishment.  It ensures that decision is not only equitable, but widely perceived as such across the command as well. 

Occasionally a leader will need to rely upon the credibility they create by leading with compassion. This was illustrated when an executive officer learned that a lance corporal mechanic was disgruntled with being excluded from a unit detachment to respond to humanitarian crisis on the African continent. The lance corporal, a woman, was frustrated that only men were selected for the mission and perceived the unfairness in the situation as a personal affront. The executive officer met with the lance corporal and another similarly affected Marine for a private discussion.  The executive officer explained that because mission considerations dictated that the detachment operate in an area where billeting could not support mixed genders, the unfairness, while real, was not deliberate and certainly not a reflection upon the abilities of the Marines.  The officer further emphasized that the Marines continued to play an important role in supporting other mission sets, stating that the two would be required to take on more responsibility and increased leadership.  

Tact, Integrity, and Unselfishness

Because the officer was perceived as genuine in the use of compassion in earlier times, the use of tact (openly discussing the grievance), integrity (recognizing the unfair nature with frankness) and unselfishness (making a point to address the issue personally) in this instance was received favorably. The two Marines left with an answer that satisfied them and an understanding that they were a valuable part of the team of whom much would be expected. Because what the executive officer had said was true, the Marines went on to thrive and take increased leadership within their divisions.

The implications: meaningful communication is key to successfully shepherding a unit. How a leader comports themselves carries significant ramifications in encouraging subordinates’ response to them, each other, and the enemy.  This makes tact, integrity, and unselfishness critical to setting an example for those who follow. Each of these traits provides the frame of reference a follower has for both unit and leader and are unachievable without compassion. Tact, with respect to tone, topic, and timing, degrades into obtuseness when there is no understanding of the audience. Integrity is hollow if its moralizing pays no heed to the needs of others; it becomes self-righteous. Unselfishness without compassion is a contradiction that spawns duplicitous farce.

When it comes to understanding what someone truly needs, it is hard to replace the information that is gathered by taking the time to care enough to visit the barracks, observing how the troops are living.  There is no better expression of compassion than the regular barracks tour where a command team can identify the subtle indicators of when someone is moving in the wrong direction. This is how a sergeant major discovered the outward signs of increasing internal distress; routinely reviewing the area where the single Marines reside, the sergeant major noticed the increasingly disturbing death-themed nature of one corporal’s paintings. This indicator prompted the command team to increase engagement with the Marine, ensure that the Marine had a suitable roommate and, critically, sought appropriate counsel. While you can’t prove a negative, the Marine served his tour and transition to civilian life without a tragic incident.  Mark it down in my book as one more example of heartfelt concern from the command making the difference.

Know Your People and Take Responsibility

In addition to displaying the above traits, the sergeant major’s example demonstrates the links between compassion and our principles of leadership are pervasive. Compassion is definitional in getting to know your people and look out for their welfare and foundational for developing a sense of responsibility among your subordinates. In both instances, compassion ensures the identification of and compensation for vulnerabilities. In the former, the role of compassion is self-explanatory. In the latter, exemplary. Where compassion is the leader’s modus operandi, followers observe the leader take responsibility and are inspired to do the same.

Take our “third-rail” issues: suicide, substance abuse, hazing, racial tension, and sexual assault. Difficult to deal with, devastating to morale, which among those doesn’t require the commander to expand their consciousness to find empathy and discern justice? What decision regarding a related incident doesn’t demand first a measure of compassion before any action can be deliberated? Whether condoling or condemning, compassion provides the sounding for meting out protections and punitive measures. 

In this age, when social media simultaneously connects and isolates, where once private social faux pas become virally ubiquitous, depression and anxiety can build rapidly and unrecognized, encourage destructive behaviors that derail careers and destroy lives or livelihoods. In answer, compassion encourages leaders to be physically present and engaged in the lives of troops, calling leaders to hold genuine concern. When demonstrated, it facilitates the kind of trust which can diffuse or prevent crisis by encouraging those suffering in silence to speak up. 

Compassion is the virtue that sets the command climate we all hope for, where hazing is subsumed by camaraderie, where racial tension is diffused by mutual respect and common purpose, and where sexual assault is confronted by decency and dignity. Is compassion a cure all? No. But where it is core to the basis of a command’s approach to interaction, communication and decision making, it creates standards and culture that promotes the best in us. In the event of the worst, it gives victims confidence they will receive redress and empowers them to speak out while surrounding them with allies committed to their resilience.

To be efficacious, compassion must be real. Our “fake news” age is plagued by cynicism, many of us poised to swipe left at the first sign of insincerity. The very people with the greatest need will likely be least inclined to grant trust. But, commit fully and demand wholehearted devotion of yourself and others, and your authenticity will cut through the skepticism to build loyalty, cohesion and resilience in your team. Choosing to exude compassion will imbue it in others and refine and edify all.


Like all things worth doing, developing compassion takes practice. Living it daily starts with adopting a perspective of gratitude for what we have. I recommend a personal commitment to charity, give something monthly. I also believe that frequent participation in community service, especially types that stretch your personal comfort level are helpful in honing a sense of compassion. Lastly, I recommend finding opportunities to share your experience with giving and service with others: take your family along; invite your peers from work. If a leader, where appropriate, invite those in your care to join in, or afford them time away from work to give of themselves. The experience will make you and everyone around you better for it.

Compassion is not a panacea, there is no instruction manual for how to implement utopia, and even the healthiest environments will continue to suffer from tragedy. Practicing compassion is not without challenge. In forgiveness, it must be tempered by discipline; where tolerant of error, checked by accountability. It is not a free pass. However, making compassion central to a leadership philosophy creates a layered defense against the worst, with fall backs for mistakes (mercy for contrition and the redemption of second chances) and multiple defensive positions (see something say something attitudes; no shame in asking for help). It also provides for effective offense by reinforcing success (breeding a positive culture) and cultivating agility (laying the foundation to achieve excellence). Fulsome practice of compassion has broad and decisive positive impact across a command. Considering the virtues that define effective leadership in our modern world, compassion is truly the first among equals.

Lieutenant Colonel Matthew R. Crouch, US Marine Corps, is a Senior Military Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, he holds master’s degrees in Political Science and International Business Administration and is an Olmsted Scholar.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the US government or other organization.

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Selected Leadership Traits from Principles of Marine Corps Leadership

Definition – Giving reward and punishment according to the merits of the case in question. The ability to administer a system of rewards and punishments impartially and consistently. 

Significance – The quality of displaying fairness and impartiality is critical in order to gain the trust and respect of subordinates and maintains discipline and unit cohesion, particularly in the exercise of responsibility. 


Definition – The ability to weigh facts and possible courses of action in order to make sound decisions. Significance – Sound judgment allows a leader to make appropriate decisions in the guidance and training of his/her Marines and the employment of his/her unit. A Marine who exercises good judgment weighs pros and cons accordingly when making appropriate decisions 


Definition – The ability to deal with others in a manner that will maintain good relations and avoid offense. More simply stated, tact is the ability to say and do the right thing at the right time. 

Significance – The quality of consistently treating peers, seniors, and subordinates with respect and courtesy is a sign of maturity. Tact allows commands, guidance, and opinions to be expressed in a constructive and beneficial manner. This deference must be extended under all conditions regardless of true feelings. 


Definition – Uprightness of character and soundness of moral principles. The quality of truthfulness and honesty. 

Significance – A Marine’s word is his/her bond. Nothing less than complete honesty in all of your dealings with subordinates, peers, and superiors is acceptable. 


Definition – Avoidance of providing for one’s own comfort and personal advancement at the expense of others. 

Significance – The quality of looking out for the needs of your subordinates before your own is the essence of leadership. This quality is not to be confused with putting these matters ahead of the accomplishment of the mission. 

Know Your People and Look Out for Their Welfare

This is one of the most important of the leadership principles. A leader must make a conscientious effort to observe his Marines and how they react to different situations. A Marine who is nervous and lacks self-confidence should never be put in a situation where an important decision must be made. This knowledge will enable you as the leader to determine when close supervision is required. – To put this principle in to practice successfully you should: – Put your Marines welfare before you own – Be approachable – Encourage individual development – Know your unit’s mental attitude; keep in touch with their thoughts – Ensure fair and equal distribution of rewards – Provide sufficient recreational time and insist on participation.

Develop a Sense of Responsibility Among Your Subordinates

Another way to show your Marines you are interested in their welfare is to give them the opportunity for professional development. Assigning tasks and delegating authority promotes mutual confidence and respect between leader and subordinates. It also encourages subordinates to exercise initiative and to give wholehearted cooperation in accomplishment of unit tasks. When you properly delegate authority, you demonstrate faith in your Marines and increase authority, and increase their desire for greater responsibilities. – To develop this principle you should: – Operate through the chain of command – Provide clear, well thought out directions – Give your subordinates frequent opportunities to perform duties normally performed by senior personnel – Be quick to recognize your subordinates’ accomplishments when they demonstrate initiative and resourcefulness – Correct errors in judgment and initiative in a way, which will encourage the individual to try harder – Give advice and assistance freely when your subordinates request it – Resist the urge to micro manage – Be prompt and fair in backing subordinates – Accept responsibility willingly and insist t

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