1 Introduction

Leadership has been one of the most comprehensively studied scientific disciplines for over a century, transcending cultures, domains and dimensions through social, psychological and organizational perspectives (Hogg 2001; King 1990). Indeed, there are many hues of leadership which have been examined and like a colourful tapestry they baffle more, than clarify the mystique of leadership. In an attempt to explain the complex nature of leadership a wide variety of theoretical approaches have been studied. Scholarly studies have conceptualized leadership from several viewpoints. Some considered it from the perspective of a process, a trait, a behaviour while others from an information-processing and relationship perspective. Among many leadership styles, one of the styles that has started to receive considerable attention in the business world-and duly amplified by the calamitous impact of COVID-19- is compassionate leadership. In a world beset with uncertain times where the future of our jobs and uncertain economic conditions are giving rise to anxiety, stress, insecurity, burnout levels to an unprecedented level compassionate leadership has been mooted as the panacea to address the suffering, pain and toxicity being perpetuated and experienced by the workforce at their workplaces (Frost 2003; Gallo 2020; Moss 2021; Rao and Sutton 2020; Trapp 2019). Compassionate leadership is viewed as a leadership that embodies an act of love, care, and selflessness and enables a caring and supportive organization (Oruh et al. 2021). A compassionate leader has a genuine interest in seeing their people not just perform but thrive. Compassionate leadership is an interpersonal process involving the noticing, feeling, sense making, and acting by the giver in a way that alleviates the suffering of the receiver (Banker and Bhal 2018).

When employees experience compassion at their workplace in times of suffering, they receive many benefits. For instance, employees feel legitimized and elevated; recover more quickly; develop confidence in being valued by their organizations; feel more satisfied in their jobs; experience positive emotions at work; reciprocate with compassion towards others; feel connected to their organizations; generate cooperation amongst others and create a conducive environment of respect and harmony (Lilius et al. 2013). These benefits in turn lead to enhanced productivity and better organizational performance. Leadership at workplace is inexorably linked not only to the organizational productivity and performance, but also to the well-being and health of its workforce. Organizational leaders’ responsibility towards their organization and workforce gets magnified during times of crisis, such as the pandemic. It is the leader’s job to prevent a disaster from turning into a catastrophe by building cultural and psychological protections for the employees (Rao and Sutton 2020). Compassion is expected to create a sense of togetherness during the crisis. It is little wonder that during such times one sees increased cries for compassion and succour at workplaces. Hence, it is timely to explore the relevance of compassionate leadership especially during times of crisis, wherein the future of our jobs, the economies, and the world is hazy. The demonstration of empathy and walking compassionately in the shoes of employees is critical during times in which human tragedy is frequent.

Unfortunately, despite the significance of compassionate leadership for organizations, academic research is limited and fragmented. Past studies on compassionate leadership have been mostly in the field of health and medical industry demonstrating a significant gap in the business domain. Any efforts to conceptualize the critical dimensions of compassionate leadership are still in the nascent stage. These limitations make it difficult for researchers and practitioners to appreciate the progress made in the compassionate leadership literature; to derive comprehensive and objective insights; to forge a path ahead for theoretical, empirical advancement and, to develop a practitioners' guide (Balasubramanian and Fernandes 2022).

Webster and Watson (2002) believe that tackling an emerging issue could benefit from exposure to potential theoretical foundations resulting in the development of a proposed conceptual model. The significance of compassionate leadership as an emerging issue is relevant, pertinent and a better understanding is needed. A systematic review is considered as a suitable fit when one seeks evidence in the literature to answer specific research questions. It is a methodology that is more rigorous than literature reviews, is scientific, transparent, replicable and limits the subjectivity and bias of the researchers (Kuckertz and Block 2021; Pizzolitto et al. 2022; Tranfield et al.2003).

Several studies have systematically reviewed different leadership styles. For example, Pizzolitto et al. (2022) in their systematic review analyse fifty four articles to explore the effects of authoritarian leadership styles on performance by using a protocol developed by Wolfswinkel et al. (2011). Their analysis reveals that authoritarian leadership can negatively affect team performance; can compromise the team’s psychological self-confidence, and thereby worsen performance. Their analysis also reveals that the interest in the field in the last two decades has shifted from Western to Eastern countries as an affirmation of the prevalence of authoritarian leadership styles in most eastern businesses. Williams et al. (2022) focused on leader credibility based on an analysis of 108 articles where they find that leader credibility is not consistently defined or measured. Rudolph et al. (2020) present a critique on healthy leadership while comparing various models of ‘health leadership’. Their review of 35 articles finds methodological issues, unclear procedures for scoring measures and a lack of critical approach for introducing new concepts or discussing research findings. Frangieh and Yaacoub (2017) explore the topic of responsible leadership, its challenges, outcomes and practices while Haque et al. (2021) in their review on responsible leadership offer a conceptual framework to propose a relationship between presenteeism and employee turnover. Eva et al. (2019) analyse 270 articles to provide a conceptual clarity of servant leadership in comparison to other leadership styles. They propose a definition of servant leadership and evaluate 16 measures of servant leadership. Pearson-Goff and Herrington (2014) discuss what police leadership is, their characteristics and activities through their review of 66 articles. Bush and Glover (2016) examine literature on school leadership and management in South Africa linked to the 20th anniversary of the democratic government and integrated education. Although there are several systematic reviews on different leadership styles, we did not find any review on compassionate leadership. In summary, the significance of compassionate leadership for organizations, limited academic research in the business domain and a lack of any systematic review for this timeless and timely concept pointed us to study the extant literature for this emerging phenomenon.

Thus, this study aims to identify and resolve definitional ambiguities, provide an integrated and synthesized overview of the current state of knowledge, evaluate existing methodological approaches, describe research insights and gaps, and provide future research directions. Integrating existing knowledge into a comprehensive model allows investigation of multiple theoretical perspectives simultaneously and allows knowledge to grow consistently in the field (Webster and Watson 2002). The results will provide organizational leaders with valuable and actionable insights on compassionate leadership. This study addresses the following research questions:

  1. (1)

    How is compassionate leadership defined and viewed in the literature?

  2. (2)

    How do we measure compassionate leadership?

  3. (3)

    What are the critical dimensions of compassionate leadership?

  4. (4)

    What are the follower and organizational benefits of compassionate leadership?

  5. (5)

    What is the future of compassionate leadership research?

Following this introduction, the rest of the paper is organized as follows: Sect. 2 provides a brief background on compassion at the workplace; Sect. 3 explains the research methodology; Sect. 4 discusses the findings based upon the research questions and limitations of the study; and finally, in Sect. 5 we discuss the implications.

2 Background on compassion at the workplace

Since Frost’s (1999) call there has been a growing body of research devoted to examining compassion at workplace. These studies have argued in favour of workplace compassion as an alternate paradigm over the traditional motivation and rationale-based management approaches (Guinot et al. 2020). Workplace compassion has been defined as the interpersonal process involving the noticing, feeling, sense-making, and acting in a way that alleviates the suffering of another person and has been mooted as a panacea to address the suffering and help develop organizational performance (Dutton et al. 2014; Guinot et al. 2020).

The earliest stream of studies comprised of essays passionately arguing in support of compassion at the workplace (Dutton et al. 2005, 2006; Frost 1999, 2004, 2006; Kanov et al. 2004; Lilius et al. 2003, 2008). Workplaces are the environment in which we live and breathe our professional lives. These environments can be sources of inspiration, learning, enjoyment and fun, or/and of pain, suffering, intrigue, conspiracies, frustration, harm or other debilitating effects (Gersick et al. 2000). Avramchuk et al. (2013) viewed compassion as being helpful in organizational change and development. Paakkanen et al. (2021) find that compassion skills could be developed through emotional training skills. Guinot et al. (2020) in their empirical study test the direct and indirect effects of compassion on organizational performance and relationships. Others have focused on compassion practices at business organizations on how managers construe the meaning of compassion at their workplace (Banker and Bhal 2018). Wei et al. (2016) develop a theoretical framework for understanding compassion and Papazoglou et al. (2019) focus on compassion satisfaction and fatigue among police officers.

Experiencing compassion at the workplace strengthens the bond between the workers psychologically; there is increased commitment to the organization, and co-workers demonstrate supportive behaviour to their colleagues. Compassion helps in reducing burnout and fatigue, improves the well-being and health of the workforce, strengthens the relationship among the employees and contributes to the overall productivity in an organization (Poorkavoos 2016). Other studies have also pointed out to improved performance, trust, commitment, customer satisfaction, positive emotions, employee engagement, prosocial behaviour’s, employee attraction and retention contributing to their competitive advantage in the long run (Guinot et al. 2020). Compassionate leaders would not only understand but proactively ask and seek information to place themselves in the shoes of their direct reports and act to lighten the suffering. Balasubramanian and Fernandes (2022) pointed out that compassion and care create a sense of togetherness during a crisis. Bavel et al. (2020) argue that leaders' ability to develop and embed a sense of "us-ness" among followers is essential during the COVID-19 pandemic. A leader's emphasis during a crisis should be on making a connection rather than correction. Moreover, the leaders must have the humility to listen to the wide range of employee concerns during a crisis. It shows that leaders genuinely care about them and their wellbeing, including mental, emotional, and physical while making decisions (Balasubramanian and Fernandes 2022). The manner in which a leader and his/her organization manages a crisis is especially influenced by the leaders tendencies to perceiving and reacting to stakeholder’s emotions (König et al. 2020).

Thus, one may opine that compassion at the workplace has an ameliorating effect on an organization’s performance. Since leadership has an important role in creating a culture of compassion at the workplace, understanding the phenomenon of compassionate leadership is worthy and timely to uncover unexamined dimensions of the concept and suggest important practical implications for practice.

3 Research methodology

A systematic literature review methodology was adopted to answer the research questions. A systematic review brings together all existing research, follows rigorous processes and methods to focus on a specific question/s integrates and, interprets the findings to increase understanding (Denyer and Tranfield 2009; Fisch and Block 2018; Kuckertz and Block 2021; Tranfield et al. 2003). It is interesting to note how different studies have followed different steps in conducting a systematic review and these criteria’s baffle more than provide a generalized approach. For instance Baarspul and Wilderom (2011) and Khandker (2022) describe the identification or searching the research papers as the first step. Tranfield et al. (2003) divide the review process into three stages; Stage I- Planning the review; Stage II- Conducting the review; Stage III- Reporting and dissemination. In Tranfield et al. (2003) the identification/search of research appears in the second stage. Torgerson (2003) propose seven main stages of a systematic review—well established in the health care, social policy and education—and suggests starting with the protocol or plan of the research; literature search and screening; ‘scoping’ or ‘mapping’ the research; extracting the data; synthesis; and finally presenting the report. Wolfswinkel et al. (2011) propose a five-stage process using grounded theory as a method. We mostly adopt the stages and criteria proposed by Tranfield et al. (2003), Kuckertz and Block (2021), Fisch and Block (2018) and Wolfswinkel et al. (2011). Tranfield et al. (2003) has one of the highest citations (n = 10,573) which reveals the high influence of their work (Khandker 2022), while Kuckertz and Block (2021) and Fisch and Block (2018) acknowledge a lack of clear guidelines and provide the criteria’s for reviewing the articles in management and business research. The following section focuses on how the review was conducted.

3.1 Conducting the review

The review panel consisted of the four authors who have extensive industry experience in the field of leadership and academia. By virtue of their senior leadership positions at various organizations, they have a solid grasp of leadership and its nuances. The initial stages of review were an iterative process wherein the concept of compassionate leadership was discussed and clarified amongst the authors and a consensus was reached on the importance of such a study to be conducted.

3.1.1 Identification of research (article extraction)

As recommended by Webster & Watson (2002) we conducted an extensive search to determine the articles for the review and are discussed below:

Identification of databases and Search scope

  1. (1)

    Firstly, a cursory electronic search (rapid scope) through Google Scholar was conducted.

  2. (2)

    Secondly, databases such as EBSCO Discovery Services, Web of Science Core Collections and Scopus were searched. In addition, as recommended by Webster and Watson (2002) a search was performed to identify relevant papers from the citations of articles.

  3. (3)

    Thirdly, unpublished articles were solicited from a body of leadership scholars listed in the Network of Leadership Scholars through Connect. Aom.Org. Kuckertz and Block (2021) propose inclusion of more than one database to address triangulation which helps compensate for any disadvantage emanating from a single database.

  4. (4)

    The search scanned the years 1999–2021 as 1999 was the year when Frost’s first peer-reviewed call on compassion at workplace was published (Frost 1999). However, articles published before 1999 relating to compassionate leadership were also considered to trace the evolution of the concept.

  5. (5)

    As the topic is about compassionate leadership, the key words used were ‘compassion’, ‘compassionate’, leadership, ‘workplace’ in ‘all text’ field. The search was limited to English language studies, being the main language of the researchers.

  6. (6)

    The search in EBSCO and Scopus yielded a combined list of 1636 articles (Fig. 1). Likewise, a search in the Web of Science Core Collection database yielded a list of 239 articles (Fig. 2). No unpublished articles were made available from the Network of Leadership Scholars forum. Thus, a total of 1875 articles were identified (see Fig. 3).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Number of articles published in EBSO and Scopus from 199 to 2021

Fig. 2
figure 2

Number of articles published in Web of Science from 2001 to 2021

Fig. 3
figure 3

Flow diagram for Systematic Literature Review

3.2 Inclusion/exclusion criteria

The inclusion and exclusion followed a four-step process.

  1. (1)

    In the first step, the titles of all retrieved articles (n = 1875) were scrutinized to identify the topic of compassionate leadership at workplace.

  2. (2)

    In the second step, the identified studies were scrutinized for the keywords such as compassion, leadership, compassionate care, emotions, empathy, stress, managerial leadership, COVID-19, servant leadership, compassionate love, leadership, benevolent leadership, meaningfulness, mentoring, well-being, decision making, mindfulness, adaptive and resilience, narcissism. These keywords are found to be used in the literature of compassionate leadership studies. Keywords were looked up in two fields- keyword and abstract (Khandker 2022)

  3. (3)

    In the third step, the list of articles (n = 1875)-we called it sample A- were reviewed to focus on articles published in all well recognized journals from 1999 as listed in the Social Science Citation Index or ranked in the Association of Business Deans Council (ABDC). In order to do that, we performed two comparisons. (1) Compared the journals in the Sample list A with the list of journals from the Social Science Citation Index and (2) compared the sample list A with the list of journals from the Association of Business Deans Council (ABDC). The list of journals in the Social Science Citation Index (updated as of 21st August 2021) was downloaded on 6th Sept 2021. Likewise, the list of journals in ABDC (updated as of 6th December 2019) was also downloaded on 6th Sept 2021. Since a manual comparison was difficult to perform, a free comparison tool located through an extensive internet search (https://www.xlcomparator.net/index.php) was identified and used. Using this tool, we first compared the Sample A list with the Social Science Citation index list and it identified a list of 174 common journals. Second, we compared the Sample A list with the list of ABDC journals list and it identified up a list of 222 common journals. The two lists comprising of 174 and 222 names of journals were then checked to identify any common journals in both the Social Science Citation index and the ABDC journals list. This yielded a total of 194 journals in both the databases. This list of 194 journals was used to identify the articles and it yielded a list of 803 articles.

  4. (4)

    In the final step, the abstracts from this list of 803 articles were reviewed by the authors to decide which article to include and a judgement was made based upon the theme of compassionate leadership. Book reviews, book chapters, editorials and a Presidential address were excluded from the selection. Duplicates were also removed. The reviewers also considered inclusion of some of the seminal and highly cited articles. The final list for review comprised of 41 articles. In line with the recommendations of Kuckertz and Block (2021) the selection process is illustrated as a flowchart in Fig. 3.

True to the interdisciplinary nature of leadership, compassionate leadership studies transcend several disciplines (Eva et al. 2019). The most dominant discipline in which compassionate leadership has been studied is that of healthcare (n = 17). On the other hand, studies in the discipline of Business/Management are a respectable number (n = 14) and seem to be a growing area of interest among the Business/Management scholars. Studies related to compassionate leadership have also emerged in other disciplines such as Organizational Science/Studies (n = 4), Political Science/Administration (n = 2), Family violence (n = 1), Physical education (n = 1), and Human Resource (n = 1).

Our review of the articles published reveals that a majority of these publications are mostly qualitative (n = 34) see (Table 1), while there are 5 articles which are quantitative (see Table 2) and 2 studies employing mixed methods approach (Table 3). Of the 41 studies, 27 were empirical (Table 4) while 14 were non-empirical (Table 5). The review reveals that compassionate leadership is still in a nascent stage. Even though the year 1999 was selected as the base year for identifying studies based on the theme of compassionate leadership, most of the studies emerge from 2002 with several important contributions from (Frost et al. 2004; Kanov et al. 2004; Lilius et al. 2003) in the form of commentary and discussions.

Table 1 Details of qualitative studies
Table 2 Details of quantitative studies
Table 3 Details of mixed method studies
Table 4 Details of empirical studies
Table 5 Details of non-empirical studies

4 Findings

The findings are organized in line with the research questions.

4.1 Definitions of compassionate leadership (RQ1)

In this section, we review how compassionate leadership has been defined in the selected articles and how compassionate leadership is understood. Literature on compassion reveals a variety of ways in which compassion has been defined, and most of the authors agree that compassion in leadership is an essential trait and the need of the hour, but one hardly finds an article which defines compassionate leadership clearly. Banker and Bhal (2018) associate compassionate leadership to a mindset which helps improve transcultural work relationships and understand complex situations, while Boyatzis et al. (2006) emphasizes the importance of coaching with compassion for leaders to sustain themselves in their role. Boyatzis et al. (2006) define coaching with compassion as coaching others with a view for their development unlike coaching which is strictly for the benefit of the organization. Vogus et al. (2020) associate compassionate leadership style to servant leadership which in their view is' inherently' compassionate. Delving a bit further, Brouns et al. (2020) attempt to understand whether compassionate love is an antecedent to servant leadership and find a positive association between a leaders’ compassionate love and servant leadership. Hewison et al. (2019) attempt to define compassionate leadership and find support in Vogus et al. (2020). They conclude that compassionate leadership is related both to servant leadership and resonant leadership combining the values of empathy, needs awareness, authentic response and commitment to growth of people. Oruh et al. (2021) offer the view that a managerial leadership -which combines the skills of a manager with the qualities of a leader- needs to include compassionate characteristics in order to be effective. They propose that a compassionate managerial leadership embodies an act of love, care and selflessness which enables a caring and supportive organization. Hougaard et al. (2020) assert that demonstrating compassion is not enough for leaders, for effective leadership, compassion must be combined with wisdom. They term this as wise compassionate leadership wherein leaders balance their concern for their employees with the need to move their organization forward in an efficient and productive manner. They assert that wise compassionate leadership enables tough action to be taken while genuinely caring for people's feelings and wellbeing. Paakkanen et al. (2021) find that compassion could be increased among managers through improving their emotional skills, unlike the traditional belief that compassion is an inherent trait. Coffey et al. (2019) present the view that effective leadership is the key to delivering safe and compassionate health care while stressing that lack of compassionate leadership results in a negative impact on organizational outcomes and quality. However, the study does not offer any definition of compassionate leadership.

Shuck et al. (2019) come very close to defining compassionate leadership when they conceptualize compassionate leader behavior as a new leadership construct embodying six behaviors- integrity, empathy, accountability, authenticity, presence, and dignity. Their study finds that these six behaviors are more likely to influence individual and organizational outcomes but they stop short of finding how much the impact would be on productivity, workplace culture, and firm performance. Tzortzaki (2019) propose that the core element of being a compassionate leader lies in them being self-compassionate. They assert that one cannot be an effective manager without being first and foremost effective at self-management. In other words, one cannot be compassionate towards others if one does not have the ability to be self-compassionate. Willis and Anstey (2019), drawing on a case of patient care, find support for four key elements proposed by West et al. (2017), which comprise of attending; understanding; being empathetic, and helping. By reviewing studies related to compassionate leadership in healthcare, de Zulueta (2016) stresses that the qualities of servant leadership, such as altruism; integrity; humility, and wisdom, combined with the qualities of appreciation and empowerment as required characteristics of compassionate leadership. Wei et al. (2016) emphasize the importance of self-cultivation as an important initiator of compassionate behaviors, enabling organizational and team development. In their view, self-cultivation and compassion are closely intertwined and prerequisites for organizational growth, even though the relationship may not be straightforward. Karakas and Sarigollu (2013) espouse the role of benevolent leadership in fostering a compassionate organization through the four elements of: spiritual depth, ethical sensitivity, positive engagement, and community responsiveness. Table 6 presented below reflects the definitional views of the different authors.

Table 6 Definitional views of different authors

A review of the selected literature establishes the point that the definition of compassionate leadership is ambiguous, fragmented, blurs and resonates with other leadership constructs and approaches, such as servant leadership, resonant leadership, benevolent leadership, transformational leadership or ethical leadership. Shuck et al. (2019) acknowledge the connection compassionate leader behaviours have to other leadership typologies, yet at the same time dismiss the notion that these typologies are the same. This is reminiscent of the many dimensions into which leadership' itself has been cast with many over-lapping meanings adding to the confusion. Nevertheless, there are sufficient pointers to permit a rough sketch of a classification of the construct compassionate leadership.

Based on the literature and definition synthesis, we propose “compassionate leadership can be conceived as a personality encompassing the traits and behaviours of compassionate love, care, selflessness, wisdom, integrity, empathy, accountability, authenticity, presence, dignity, self-compassion and self-cultivation as a matter of inducing, motivating, influencing, persuading people to achieve their personal and organizations growth”. However, we concede that this is a broad and general definition which required further development.

4.2 Existing measures for compassionate leadership (RQ2)

A review of the articles reveals that the construct of compassionate leadership is still in an embryonic stage. Robust measures to capture compassionate leadership are essential for the establishment of a common conceptual base, especially when the existing body of knowledge on compassionate leadership is limited and scattered across the literature. Unfortunately, we have only come across one study which has attempted to develop the measures of compassionate leadership. Shuck et al. (2019) concede the lack of previously developed items and produce their own items on six different themes derived from the literature: Empathy; Presence; Integrity; Authenticity; Dignity and Accountability. More work is required to test the generalizability and transferability of the six themes of compassionate leadership in different contexts. Other studies such as Balasubramanian and Fernandes (2022) have used compassion as sub-construct to measure crisis leadership. The four key measures for this construct include 'active listener to employee concerns', empathy, employee needs are central to decision making, and encourage employee to openly and honestly express their concerns. This four-item construct had strong convergent and discriminant validity and had a reliability of 0.92 (Cronbach's alpha).

Still, there is a great scope for development of a robust measure imbibing other dimensions of leadership as discussed in the previous sections to measure compassionate leadership behaviour. Lack of reliable quantitative measures had stalled researchers' efforts in evaluating compassionate leadership.

Not only should compassionate leadership be measured from the 'givers' (leaders) perspective but also from the 'receivers’ side (follower perspective). Due to lack of studies involving the measures, one is unable to contrast and compare the different measures employed by different studies. However, as the field of study develops further, we expect that more studies would emerge with robust measures.

4.3 Proposed dimensions of compassionate leadership (RQ3)

It was evident from our review, compassionate leadership is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, encompassing several dimensions. The six key dimensions of compassionate leadership derived from the literature are as follows:

4.3.1 Empathy

Empathy is defined as one’s ability and propensity to sense the feelings of people in emotional distress and to re-experience these feelings oneself (Salovey et al. 2003). This includes cognitive, emotional, and behavioural tendencies to be attentive to others’ feelings and to understand the world from their point of view. Further, empathy at the workplace includes the need to listen attentively, relate to and understand others, as well as clarify others' perspectives. For example, feeling the pain of someone for a particular issue and taking action to alleviate that pain (Vogus et al. 2020). The concept of empathy in the leadership context is understanding employees’ perspectives, thoughts and/or feelings and taking action (Shuck et al. 2019). Empathy toward employees is considered a critical component of compassionate leadership. Empathetic leaders show feelings of warmth and concern for employees in distress. Several studies highlight empathy as the foundation for building compassionate leadership. According to Banker and Bhal (2018), leaders should empathize with people’s issues and look forward to building a compassionate organization in order to yield positive organizational benefits. Empathetic concern towards employees can successfully build compassionate culture by ingraining ethical/moral virtues in people, creating a conducive workplace, and building trust in people for the organization. For instance, when helping an employee through a challenging task, a leader may notice the struggle, have empathy toward the employee and ask how they can help.

4.3.2 Openness and communication

Creating a culture of openness is important for promoting compassion at workplace. Hence, compassionate leaders promote openness at workplace. Communications that are honest and transparent, being factual, frequent, iterative, clear and direct are critical aspect of compassionate leadership. Employees respond so much better to the known (even if the news isn’t great) than the unknown (which tends to fuel more anxiety) or, even worse, misleading half-truths or irresponsible optimism (Balasubramanian and Fernandes 2022). Constant and open communications from leaders was found to helped alleviate the negative feelings developed at workplace. The importance of open and transparent communication was evident during the COVID-19 pandemic (Balasubramanian and Fernandes 2022).

4.3.3 Physical, mental health and well-being

Compassionate leaders are expected to take actions to protect, maintain, or restore wellbeing. physical, mental health and wellbeing of employees especially for stressful occupational conditions. This include balancing employee workload, increase safety precautions at workplace, promote mental health among others. Leaders that advance and improve working conditions in terms of physical, mental and social wellbeing, are more likely to have employees perceiving their leaders’ management style as positive (i.e., manages who are supportive, consider their concerns, empower them, and listen, including co-operating with them and providing counselling) (Mayer and Oosthuizen 2020). This include providing psychological support and coping mechanisms. These employees demonstrate high levels of psychological connection, engagement and performance.

4.3.4 Inclusiveness

Leader inclusiveness or “words and deeds exhibited by leaders that invite and appreciate others’ contributions” is an important component of compassionate leadership (Nembhard and Edmondson 2006). Inclusiveness involves looking after employees at all levels, and functions including outsourced employees. Compassionate leaders promote inclusive work culture, involve and engage in inclusive decision-making wherein the leader will take the employees in confidence and seek their feedback/advice irrespective of their designation. Previous studies have shown that inclusiveness towards employees are associated with higher level of psychological safety, and diminishes the inhibiting effects of status differences and was associated with greater engagement in quality improvement work. Inclusiveness increases feelings of equality via reduced status distance, and therefore foster compassion among employees and between employees and customers (Vogus et al. 2020).

4.3.5 Integrity

The theme of integrity revolves around a sense of professional transparency, ethical behavior, fairness, trust, credibility and a personal and professional alignment with what a leader would say and do. Integrity is a core component of compassionate leadership. It helps build a level of employee credibility and trust on their leaders (Shuck et al. 2019). Similarly, compassionate leaders are expected to be fair with employees. Such leaders keep their word or promises, even when they were being pulled in different directions with competing priorities.

4.3.6 Respect and dignity

Compassion underpins respectful relationships. Dignity involves acknowledging the value and contribution of each person. For a compassionate leader, every employee (even if they are struggling) is of value to the organization so they treat them with interest and respect. By treating people with respect, valuing employees' contributions, and honoring them, employees will develop a great sense of dignity at work (Shuck et al. 2019).

4.4 Leader, follower and organizational benefits of compassionate leadership (RQ4)

It was evident from the review that compassionate leaders have stronger and more-engaged followers. Compassionate leadership helps leaders to focus on the positive, look beyond cultural differences and see the good in others. It helps leaders to be appreciative and open-minded and minimizes cultural and religious stereotypes. The compassionate leader is well placed to recognize and nurture every member of the team's strengths and talents and develop their skills and confidence (Willis and Anstey 2019).

Frost (2003) examines the actions of leaders and organizations in creating emotional pain and points out how the emotional pain, if unacknowledged and unaddressed, leads to toxicity in the workplace affecting performance. The study argues that leaders must recognize this situation and take steps to alleviate the suffering if their organization has to remain productive. He asserts that emotional pain can be turned from an obstacle to a positive force for change if it is acknowledged and appropriately managed. In achieving this, compassionate leadership can ensure that the value of staff wellbeing is recognized and, more importantly, that staff should feel that they are being cared for and not ‘just treated’ (Willis and Anstey 2019). Foster (2021) opines that a leader must understand the extraordinary pressure and the circumstances employees work under and encourage kindness, find time to listen to people's frustrations, show empathy, and be aware. Karakas and Sarigollu (2013) echo a similar opinion when they assert that benevolent leaders, i.e., who create observable benefits, actions, or results for the common good, thus contributing to the creation of compassionate organizations. Oruh et al. (2021) reported that compassionate leadership can help employees respond to their concerns of “fear of job (in)security”, “healthcare risks” “work overload, underpayment, and delayed payment” being the main causes of stress for employees during COVID-19.

From an organizational perspective, compassionate leadership yields many favorable benefits to the organization; for example, compassionate behavior with employees during turbulent times leads to increased employee commitment and  reduced absenteeism (Dutton et al. 2006). Firms with more-compassionate leaders have better collaboration, lower employee turnover, and followers who are more trusting, more connected, and more committed to the organization (Hougaard et al. 2018). Compassionate leadership creates the necessary conditions for innovation among individuals, teams, and organizational levels (Hewison et al. 2019). Shuck et al. (2019) found compassionate leadership to have a negative influence on employee turnover and a positive correlation between compassionate leadership, employee engagement, and employee psychological wellbeing. Compassionate leadership positively impacts employees, encouraging creativity in problem-solving and a high level of engagement (Mayer and Oosthuizen 2020).

4.5 The future of compassionate leadership studies (RQ5)

Future research directions are drawn from the limitations of existing studies. One of the major limitations of this study is the paucity of studies focused on compassionate leadership in the field of management. This paucity while posing a limitation also provides a good scope for further research avenues. In this section, we offer our views on future course of studies on compassionate leadership.

Firstly, the concept of compassionate leadership has been widely discussed in industry publications and sparingly in the academic journals. While there appears to be general understanding of what compassionate leadership means, there is by no means any agreement on what exactly is compassionate leadership, its boundaries or its conceptualization. The systematic literature review reveals that studies never specifically define what they mean by compassionate leadership and simply use the term and assume the reader understands the concept. While we have attempted to provide a broad and general definition in line with Bass (1990, p.19), this requires further development. The concept of compassion transcends both time and discipline and has been viewed by different scholars through different lenses depending upon their theoretical tradition and empirical conversation from where they approach the topic (Frost et al. 2006) and so is the concept of leadership. With both these concepts now intertwined and dimensions of both compassion and leadership transcending several disciplines, it requires a rigorous examination for an acceptable definition to be proffered. As pointed out by Bass (1990) a definition should do more than identify leaders and indicate the means by which they acquire or dispense their positions and should account for the maintenance and continuation. Defining compassionate leadership can be a long-drawn-out but a meaningful and worthy discussion for scholars to turn their attention upon.

Secondly, while compassionate leadership is being mooted as a panacea for troubled times and as an effective leadership approach, studies should also focus on the down-side or disadvantages to the approach, particularly in light of the fact that capitalism as an economic model can bring about tension and contradictions in the work environment and therefore leave little or no room for compassion. More particularly when practicing compassion, it may be construed as being’soft’ causing the receiver to take advantage of the giver (Poorkavoos 2016).

Thirdly, the concept of compassion is often rarely expected and experienced in organization climates; this is particularly very visible in the public sector. How then can a leadership approach of this nature be applicable and prove to be valuable in the private sector? For example, one may expect this quality to be a most valuable asset for policy makers in the public sector when interacting with the local citizenry and their constituents, but will it serve in the long run as an approach to general leadership in the private sector?

Fourthly, there is a great scope for development of robust measures imbibing other dimensions of leadership to measure compassionate leadership behavior. Previous literature has largely failed to empirically examine compassionate leadership as a multi-dimensional construct. Future studies could focus on developing a measurement model incorporating the various sub-dimensions of compassionate leadership such as empathy, care, integrity etc.

Fifthly, not only should compassionate leadership be measured from the leaders’ perspective but also from the followers’ perspective. Measuring compassionate leadership from both leader and follower perspective is critical given that discrepancies are often found between leaders’ self-perception and followers’ perception of leadership (Sehgal et al. 2021). A greater discrepancy in the leader–follower perception could lead to surprise, consternation, disbelief, or emotional distress among employees, which could lead to a poor organizational culture and employee productivity. Such understanding is critical for narrowing the leader–follower perception gap and achieving congruence.

Sixthly, it is clear from the review that hardly any studies have examined compassionate leadership in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0). Industry 4.0 is synonymous with an environment where technology and human interaction are hand-in-glove and enmeshed. The resultant outcome is expected to produce desired results and successful outcomes of strategic organizational initiatives. Smart systems demand high levels of innovation and creativity, digitalization, and artificial intelligence, which may contribute to high levels of stress experienced at the workplace. Technology is employed for generating efficiency and benefits for the organization, but the same technology can also induce stress and emotions such as frustration, disorientation, sadness, insecurity, and ambiguity, among many other negative emotions among the employees. It is unclear how compassionate leadership could create and provide the appropriate guidance during the industry 4.0 to address the employee challenges that can negatively impact organizational goals.

Seventhly, most of the studies on compassion and compassionate leadership emanate from the medical and healthcare field (de Zulueta 2016; Hewison et al. 2018, 2019; Hofmeyer et al. 2020; Jones et al. 2021; Landers et al. 2020; Papadopoulos et al. 2021; Willis and Anstey 2019), while the field of management suffers from a deficit leaving the field wide open for a range of studies.

Finally, it is essential to look at compassionate leadership from a critical standpoint, given the realistic situation of most organizations. Given the increasingly competitive landscape, it is very likely that the compassionate leader is seen as someone who is "weak" or "being soft" or trying to please people by giving them what they want; rather than giving people what they need, such as tough feedback.

We summarize the eight recommendations for future research in Table 7 below.

Table 7 Recommendations for future research. Research areas and questions

4.6 Study limitations

Although this study was rigorously done, we acknowledge the limitations, especially those concerning the literature sampling criteria and analysis. The final list of studies considered may not be exhaustive because of the limitations in the keywords searched and the databases used. Regarding the findings, it is important to note that the proposed six dimensions of compassionate leadership are not intended to be the final word on the subject. Rather, they represent an initial exploration into the dimensions of compassionate leadership. There is a need for further research to refine, validate and extend these dimensions and develop measurement items to fully capture each aspect. Additionally, it's essential to consider that compassionate leadership does not exist in isolation, but is rather interwoven with other leadership styles, such as hybrid leadership, benevolent leadership and servant leadership. It would be interesting to explore the similarities and differences between compassionate leadership and other leadership styles in future studies. Ultimately, our study represents a first step in understanding the complexities of compassionate leadership, but there is still much more to uncover and explore in this area.

However, despite these limitations, the contributions of this study are novel and of significant relevance for both practitioners in advancing our understanding of compassionate leadership. For researchers, this study provides a solid theoretical foundation that may greatly facilitate further empirical work in this domain.

5 Implications and conclusions

This study explored more than two decades of studies on compassionate leadership. This study advances knowledge and points out the gaps in the previous literature on compassionate leadership. For instance, this study has identified several trends, consensus, conflicts, approaches, and methods to better understand and improve the concept of compassionate leadership and guide future research. The implications of this study are manifold, as discussed below:

5.1 Practical implications

The review of the articles indicates that compassionate leadership has the potential to have positive effects on both the leadership and the workforce. Training programs can be developed around the different dimensions of compassionate leadership by developing a deeper understanding of what it means to be a compassionate leader. The key practical implications of the review articles are summarized in Table 8.

Table 8 Key practical implications of the review articles

The synthesis of practical implications in these studies reemphasizes the fact that empathy, understanding, and self-compassion are critical elements in creating a positive work environment and achieving better outcomes, success, and well-being of individuals, teams, and organizations across various sectors such as healthcare, public service, and business(Foster 2021; Hougaard et al. 2020; König et al. 2020). The positive outcomes include increased trust, collaboration, and engagement among team members. Incorporating compassion into leadership styles, training programs, and organizational cultures is emphasized to reduce burnout, promote engagement, and improve overall well-being (Hewison et al. 2019; Hofmeyer et al. 2020; Jones et al. 2021; Landers et al. 2020; Oruh et al. 2021; Papadopoulos et al. 2021; Shuck et al. 2019) Additionally, the role of benevolent leadership, coaching with compassion, and integrating coaching, compassion, and leadership is discussed as crucial for developing capable leaders(Boyatzis et al. 2006; de Zulueta 2016; Karakas and Sarigollu 2013).

The common thread across these implications is the recognition that leadership is not just about getting things done but also about how things are done (Shuck et al. 2019). Leaders who practice compassion can create supportive, collaborative, and inclusive work environments where people feel valued, connected, and engaged.

Moreover, the implications provided in these studies in Table 8 also highlight the need for education and training in leadership skills, particularly in compassionate leadership. This includes training in empathy, self-compassion, coaching, and emotional resilience(Banker and Bhal 2018; de Zulueta 2016; Hougaard et al. 2020; König et al. 2020; Shuck et al. 2019; Tzortzaki 2019). In addition, these studies emphasize the importance of creating a collective leadership culture of compassion and collaboration, where all those working in an organization, including those who do not consider themselves as leaders, are equipped with leadership skills and contribute to a culture of compassion (de Zulueta 2016).

The analysis also indicates that compassionate leadership is not limited to healthcare settings but is relevant in various organizational contexts. This includes public service agencies, business organizations, and educational institutions. These studies suggest that leaders must define the organizational conditions and implement processes that support professionals' innate compassion and contribute to their well-being rather than address burnout later through remedial strategies (Lown et al. 2019).

Overall, the commonalities in these implications underscore the importance of compassionate leadership and the need for education and training in leadership skills. The results emphasize that leaders must create supportive work environments that foster collaboration, inclusivity, and compassion and to that end, practical interventions can be tailored to different contexts. For instance, in the case of healthcare, specific interventions that can be implemented include providing psychological support for officers suffering from compassion fatigue or establishing assessment programs to identify and prevent burnout (Hewison et al. 2019). Other studies suggest that leadership training should be collective and that leadership development should be informed by the context and challenges faced by leaders in specific organizations. There are also suggestions for integrating compassion into the work culture without additional facilitation and creating a supportive team and work environment through coaching with compassion (Hornett 2012).

The Fourth Industrial Revolution and its attributes have already been mentioned. Its effects on business organizations are profound and have caused many organizations to revamp their leadership direction in order that they continue and maintain their profit focus and maintain their competitive positions. Banker and Bhal (2018) remind us that organization prima facie is a profit-making entity than a social entity. Developing an organization as compassionate or non-compassionate requires the critical assessment of: (a) the intent with which it operates, (b) the kind of environment it operates within, and (c) the availability of monetary or non-monetary resources it has for different organizational and social activities. Banker and Bhal (2018) are of the opinion that in spite of having any of the three elements “missing” in an organization, the motivation for compassion can be infused by the empathetic leadership practices. Thus, it is up to the leadership to instil these practices as they are determined to have an impact on the profit-making motives of the organization. Organizations may thus continue to analyse their leadership approaches which may include the compassionate leadership from this angle.

We have long passed the era when it was believed that leaders were born into a heritage or succession line of leaders. Today, we are taught that we can all become leaders if inspired to do so and that the potential to be successful can be attained through education and training while developing the tools to motivate and convince others to accept and follow our beliefs. In addition, the experience will allow us to gain the fortitude to enhance our leadership skills, hinting that it is a continuous process as new and different challenges are confronted in the process. However, the basic traditional leadership qualities must exist in order to serve as a solid foundation from which one might build a career as a leader. These include, having and maintaining strong moral values; having a vision that provides fuel for striving to reach desired goals; and to be forward thinking, which the leader’s followers will expect of him/her.

What then has changed that would allow the compassionate leadership approach to be a viable and formidable approach when adopted by a leader to guarantee him/her success in achieving the vision? In the current contemporary business environment, a variety of factors have changed which may necessitate the adoption of the compassion leadership approach and prove to be beneficial for leaders to attain their objectives and goals. The following factors are contributing to major changes in the organizational environment that are challenging the leaders: Global work relationships; Developing transcultural environment with balanced relationships at the workplace; Technology and Digitalization—both are rapidly and constantly evolving; Economic downturn and finally, the global pandemic and its devastating impact.

A significant aspect of the global relationship factor is the migration of workers, which is a major contributively factor in organizations becoming the transcultural environments where it has become necessary for leadership and management to balance relationships to produce positive outcomes and attain strategic objectives. Woven into the fabric of the transcultural environment is the thread of technology in the form of digitalization and/or artificial intelligence, which brings into play the complexities and dynamism of the drama that unfolds in contemporary business organizations. Interwoven in this scenario is the calamitous event of the epidemic, which has left a trail of devastation in its wake. Compassionate leadership may well be the most beneficial and appropriate approach that organizational leaders may adopt to ride the tidal wave of the current climate in which they find themselves in.

5.2 Theoretical and research implications

There is little doubt that the concept of compassionate leadership is growing in importance, as is evident with the gradually increasing attention of academia and business alike. Some of the key theoretical and research implications are as follows:

  • A comprehensive literature review-based assessment of compassionate leadership has not been previously undertaken and constitutes the novelty of this work.

  • The study highlights several research gaps in the literature to enhance our understanding of compassionate leadership.

  • Six dimensions of compassionate leadership are proposed.

  • A clear future research agenda is provided.

  • This study has managed to bring some degree of consensus to the different definitions of compassionate leadership by providing a ‘new definition’ of compassionate leadership.

However, more research is required on compassionate leadership, especially in developing validated constructs and measures to appreciate the application of compassionate leadership in the organizational literature and also for it to take its rightful place as one of the accepted leadership styles.