The Importance of Compassionate Leadership in Creating Impact: Kerry Kennedy & Donato Tramuto Interview

November 11, 2021 | by Julia Masselos

Kerry Kennedy is the President of The RFK Human Rights Foundation, founded in 1968 to carry forward Robert Kennedy’s work on social justice.

Donato Tramuto is on the board of The RFK Human Rights Foundation. He is also the Founder of the Tramuto Foundation and Healthy eVillages. Both organizations are committed to addressing some of the challenges that we face now in our society. 

Healthy eVillages was founded in 2011, inspired by an article Donato read which stated that 1 billion people will go to their grave prematurely because they don’t have access to a healthcare practitioner. Article 25 of the Declaration of Human Rights states that access to healthcare is a basic human right. Healthy eVillages was launched as a direct result of that article. The program now runs in 13 countries, bringing medical tech to some of the most remote parts of the world, ensuring we are lowering that 1 billion number as much as possible.

Donato founded the workplace dignity program for The RFK Human Rights Foundation, and he also wrote a book about compassionate leadership. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Donato: It is my belief that people who were bullies in high school continue that behavior in the workplace. We are lacking compassionate leadership in the workforce, and this is something I examined in my book, The Double Bottom Line: How Compassionate Leaders Captivate Hearts and Deliver Results, out March 2022.

We interviewed 41 world leaders to understand what compassionate leadership means to them, and compared those findings with a survey of 1500 average people across the US. We found there is a huge gap between what the cohort of leaders think they’re doing to lead with compassion vs what employees feel like they are getting.

What is the Disconnect and How do we Rethink Leadership?

Donato: One gap we found is that the average CEO in the US is 59 years old – the same average age as elected leaders in Washington. By contrast, 50% of the workforce is 40 and under, and that number will rise to 75% by the end of the decade. We are not understanding what Millennials and Gen Z want in the workforce, and the CEOs continue to hire in their likeness. There is an age bias that is perpetuating a gap between leadership and employees.

Going back to our surveys of compassionate leadership, another disparity we found was that over 70% of the employee cohort felt that compassionate leadership can lead to more collaboration in the workforce. Yet, when we asked them if the workforce tends to be more competitive or more collaborative, most employees said they still felt it was competitive. This indicates there is still a lot of room for compassionate leadership in the workforce.

What are Some Myths Around Compassionate Leadership?

Myth: Compassionate leadership = weak leadership

Reality: Actually, compassionate leadership is a very strong form of leadership. In research for the book, we introduced the concept of 3 Ts. We found that the best response from employees comes when you start with Tenderness. That is how you gain Trust. And once you have trust, then you can afford to be Tenacious. If you start straight away with tenacity, you will build resentment and antagonize your employees.


Myth: Being compassionate = being nice

Reality: It is really not the same thing. For example, I can see someone in need of food and say “I feel sorry for you”, feel like I did something nice by thinking that, and then continue about my day. Compassion is different because it involves action and can lead to real impact. Empathy + Action = Impact. If there is no impact, there is no compassion.


Myth: Culture eats strategy for lunch

Reality: This couldn’t be more wrong. You must first have the trust of your people before you can address the culture of your organization. Too many leaders jump in and put together their vision, mission, values, etc without first building a trusting relationship with their employees. The outcome of that is it becomes more difficult for employees to resonate with the mission if they don’t resonate with you as a person first.


Myth: Being vulnerable means you’re weak

Reality: Actually, the more you’re willing to be vulnerable in the workforce, the more you gain the trust of employees which will allow you to lead with compassion and make a real impact in the company.

What are Some Myths Around Compassionate Leadership?

Donato: It comes back to impact again. Let me illustrate with an example. In my previous role, I never took the CEO elevator to my office. Always took the same elevator as all the other employees, and I would always ask them to tell me about what they were experiencing that day. One day, someone opened up to me about the fact that his family just got killed in Iraq. Now, I could’ve been empathic and said “Gee, I’m really sorry that happened, if you need anything let me know.” Instead, I brought him to my office right away, and we raised money that day to help survivors of the tragedy. By taking action, you show real compassion. And the beauty of this is that this is the kind of impact we can all make.

There’s benefits to moving like this in the world – you personally go home feeling much better, but the employees feel better too, like there is a soul in the company. There is something lacking in the workforce and that is a sense of belonging, we are seeing it play out now with the Great Resignation. Employees don’t want higher salaries, or greater bonuses. They want a sense of belonging, and being a compassionate leader can provide the kind of impact and belonging employees crave.

Beyond just individual organizations, I think we have the chance today to apply this kind of leadership to wider problems. We can harness modern social issues, like climate change, social unrest and financial inequities, and use them as a communication vehicle to develop real action plans, with real impact, through compassionate leadership.

How Do We Relay Value and Appreciation When Working Remotely and Cannot be Face to Face?

Donato: Compassionate leadership is helping others succeed. I know we all have our agendas, but for example, I never start zoom calls with my staff by going through the agenda. I start by asking “How are you feeling?” You’d be surprised how many people open up.

A common retort I hear from other CEOs is that they feel they are interfering, and don’t want to get involved in their employee’s personal lives. But what I say to that is you’re not interfering – people will choose whether they want to share the personal details of their life with you or not. But what I’ve learned is that if you take the first 5 – 10 minutes of your meeting to connect with people, you’ll learn what they are struggling with outside of work, and build a more resilient, trustworthy, and compassionate relationship with them. You give them the sense of belonging they’re craving.

Donato Tramuto’s book The Double Bottom Line: How Compassionate Leaders Captivate Hearts and Deliver Results will be available for purchase from March 2022.

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