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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Compassion Quotient

A Compassion Quotient

By Suzanne Marrs
Principal, Consolidated Elementary, Vigo County School Corporation
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor, Dept. of Ed. Leadership, Indiana State University

            Have you ever walked into an office or called a business over the phone, only to be greeted by someone on the other end who is less-than-pleasant and whose initial response is “No” to every question you ask? No doubt we have all been there at least a time or two -- on the other side of someone else’s bad day, leaving us with a residual feeling of discontent.

As we look into leadership and the importance of hiring the right people and keeping them, we must consider the delicate balance between a leader’s obligation to make tough and sometimes unpopular decisions and the need to encourage others to feel that they are a positive force, even in difficult times. We can’t allow for others to be on the other side of our bad days.

            For some time, a focus on “feelings” was not in the forefront of our minds as we envisioned “administration.” It was acceptable for “the boss” to be the hammer when problems arose or reprimands were needed, most often buried in the office and covered with paperwork.  In years past, school leaders were oftentimes removed from the very essence of where they often succeeded before becoming leaders: the classroom. Regarding such, Rousmaniere (2009) stated, “The principal’s office is the adult realm of the school, driven by seriousness, responsibility, and predictability, following -- or intending to follow – standard procedures” (p. 17).

The role has changed.  Now more than ever, school leaders are much more visible – on bus duty, in the lunchroom, and walking through classes several times a day.   With this comes the unquestionable need for a leader’s ability to positively interact with others. Leaders are on “stage,” their interactions on display for all to see. In such, leaders cannot underestimate the importance of how they treat others, and more importantly, how others perceive this treatment.

These perceptions are often the result of leaders accomplishing the demands of their positions (tasks), helped or hindered by the manner in which they treat those they lead, leaving a residual that we call, “A Compassion Quotient.”

A leader’s exercise of compassion has, at its forefront, one’s ability to listen.  Listening can be argued as the most important communication skill of a leader, yet how often is this evaluated in graduate preparation programs or on licensure examinations?  Karpicke and Murphy (1996) noted, “Principals who talk first and listen second (or worse yet, are perceived as never listening at all) shut themselves off from receiving true messages and stay culturally isolated. They are out of touch. Their capacity to work from within the culture is limited at best” (p. 26).  

This leader’s focus on compassion, especially with those who are abjectly abrasive and unrealistic, may seem itself a bit unrealistic with today’s increasing pressures on school leaders, yet it is a must.  If we get too wrapped-up in leading the “what” of our job descriptions rather than the “how,” we’ll be at times charging forward, yet in looking over our shoulders, we’ll notice that no one is following.  

            A compassion quotient is not difficult to foster in schools.  Simple acts are good first steps that do not take too much of a leader’s time.  Examples would include remembering birthdays or asking how someone’s family member is doing … remembering staff members’ children’s names or their spouses’ … greeting folks at the beginning of the day and wishing them well upon dismissal.  People want to feel that they matter to others with whom they work, especially the boss.  It would behoove us to keep in mind that the “feel” of the building is inextricably linked to the effort that will be expended inside of it.

Being an affirming, positive influence on the people around us cannot always easily be measured through test scores, but compassion can always be felt.  School leaders would do well to remember that staff, students, and community members cannot always remember what we did as leaders on any given day, but they can remember how we treated them.

As we continue to lead each day toward heighten levels of student achievement, we must take a few moments from time to time to ask ourselves, “What is the residual, from our interactions with others -- the “quotient” felt and remembered -- after the demands of leadership present themselves in tandem with the interpersonal needs of those we serve?”

“Is there a Compassion Quotient?”

Rousmaniere, K (2009). The Great Divide: Principals, Teachers, and the Long Hallway Between Them. History of Education Review 38(2), 17 - 27.

Karpicke, H. &Murphy, M.E. (1996). Productive School Culture: Principals working from the inside. National Association of Secondary School Principals, NASSP Bulletin 80(576), 26.


Suzanne Marrs is beginning her doctoral studies at Indiana State University and contributes to the ISU Ed. Leadershop with practical approaches in improving education as a K-12 leader. We’re quite fortunate to have Suzanne Marrs on the Leadershop Team. Please feel free to contact her at or Ryan Donlan at

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