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Leaders Through Coaching
RICHARD E. BOYATZIS
MELVIN L. SMITH
Case Western Reserve University
By integrating recent findings in affective neuroscience and biology with well-
documented research on leadership and stress, we offer a more holistic approach to
leadership development. We argue here that leader sustainability is adversely affected
by the psychological and physiological effects of chronic power stress associated with the
performance of the leadership role. We further contend, however, that when leaders
experience compassion through coaching the development of others, they experience
psychophysiological effects that restore the body’s natural healing and growth processes,
thus enhancing their sustainability. We thus suggest that to sustain their effectiveness,
leaders should emphasize coaching as a key part of their role and behavioral habits.
Implications for future research on leadership and leadership development are discussed,
as well as implications for the practice of leadership development and education.
One purpose of management education is to de-
velop people to be leaders of organizations and
institutions for the future. The manner in which we
approach the development of leaders is largely
dependent on our concept of leadership. A variety
of leadership theories have been offered over the
past several decades (see Yukl & Van Fleet, 1990).
“Great person” theories of leadership seek to un-
derstand what an effective leader does (Bennis &
Nanus, 1985) or what dispositional characteristics
enable a person to be a leader. These characteris-
tics range from cognitive ability (i.e., general g) to
traits (e.g., extroversion), motives such as McClel-
land’s (1975) need for power or charisma (Conger &
Kanungo, 1987; House, 1977), or transformational
leadership style (Bass, 1985, 1990). A contingency
theory of leadership tries to explain what types of
leaders are needed for organizational effective-
ness in various settings (Bass 1990; Boyatzis, 1982;
Fiedler, 1967; Hersey & Blanchard, 1969; Kotter,
1988; Yukl, 1998). More recent approaches to under-
standing leadership (e.g., vertical dyad linkage or
leader-member exchange) seek to understand re-
lational aspects, including the leader’s ability to
interact with others (Dansereau, Graen, & Haga,
1975; Kelly, 1992; Kram & Cherniss, 2001). These
theories are the basis for our efforts to develop
leaders; however, few if any theories of leadership
have considered physiological aspects.
By integrating the latest findings in affective
neuroscience with well-documented and recently
discovered findings in biology and stress research,
we expand the discussion of leadership and lead-
ership development beyond previously considered
factors. Utilizing a more holistic approach to lead-
ership development, we propose that leaders may
better sustain themselves by balancing the poten-
tially stressful effects of exercising leadership
with the ameliorative effects of coaching the de-
velopment of others.
The structure of this article is as follows: We
begin by exploring the potential effects of stress
from performing the leadership role. We then illus-
trate how this threatens leaders’ ability to sustain
themselves over time. Going beyond the tradi-
tional view of coaching as a means of developing
Richard Boyatzis and Melvin Smith are professors in the De-
partment of Organizational Behavior, Weatherhead School of
Management, and Nancy Blaize is an MBA graduate of Weath-
erhead School of Management. Communications should be sent
to the first author. The authors wish to thank Professors Kathy
Kram and Jane Dutton for feedback on earlier drafts and mem-
bers of the Coaching Study group at Case.
姝Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2006, Vol. 5, No. 1, 8–24.
others as leaders, we offer a new perspective— one
suggesting that the process of coaching others may
actually allow leaders to increase their own sus-
tainability as a result of the physiological effects
of experiencing compassion, which can serve as
an antidote to stress (see Figure 1). We also offer
other potential benefits (in addition to a potential
risk) of experiencing compassion from coaching
others, and acknowledge other means of experi-
encing compassion outside of the coaching rela-
tionship. Finally, we conclude with a discussion of
the implications for future research on leadership
and leadership development, as well as implica-
tions for leadership development and education.
LEADERSHIP, POWER STRESS, AND THE BODY’S
Leadership requires the exercise of influence or
power (Kotter, 1982; McClelland, 1985; Yukl & Van
Fleet, 1990). It requires having an impact on others
and making things happen. It also involves a de-
gree of responsibility for the organization. Further,
the higher a person is elevated in an organization,
the more “power” is involved in their role (Kotter,
1979), because they must influence the behavior
and decisions of people upon whom they depend
for organizational performance and for whom they
are responsible. Success and effectiveness in lead-
ership positions have been shown to be predicted
by a leader’s power motivation (McClelland, 1985;
McClelland & Boyatzis, 1982; Fontana et al., 1987;
Jenkins, 1994; Jacobs & McClelland, 1994) when
modified by unconscious and conscious self-
The exercise of leadership does not require that
a person be in a powerful position (i.e., the boss).
For example, a person could show thought leader-
ship by declaring an innovation. But both involve
influencing others and, therefore, the use of pow-
er—the former to get compliance or inspire perfor-
mance, the latter to get consideration or accep-
tance of ideas. It is the use of power or influence
that distinguishes leadership, not the power differ-
ential between the leader and others in terms of
formal organizational authority (Quinn, 2004). It is
precisely this behavioral or functional requirement
that distinguishes individuals who are exercising
leadership. When this is not viewed as part of the
role or activity, the person is less effective (McClel-
land, 1975; McClelland & Burnham, 1976). Further-
more, such influencing or exercising of power is a
major role requirement of individuals in manage-
ment or executive jobs (Kotter, 1979).
Being in situations that are perceived to be un-
controllable, those involving social evaluation (i.e.,
others observing and judging), and involving com-
mitment to reaching important or salient goals or
tasks, or being in situations that merely anticipate
events invoking these perceptions and feelings
seems to provoke stress more than being in other
types of situations (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004;
Sapolsky, 2004). Because individuals in leadership
roles have to influence others upon whom they are
dependent so that they might do their jobs, and
since they may feel responsible for the collective
effort and desired progress of the organization,
they are frequently, if not daily, in situations that
invoke stress. That is, they are personally working
on things that are important to them, somewhat
uncertain, and that often involve others watching
or critiquing. Each condition may invoke stress.
This suggests that leaders are under a steady
flow of stress related to the exercise of power and
its responsibility. This could be labeled chronic
stress, with episodes of acute stress (emerging
Theoretical Model of Sustainable Leadership and Compassion
2006 9Boyatzis, Smith, and Blaize
from a sudden or unexpected crisis). This combi-
nation of stress is said to increase the “allostatic
load” on individuals (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004;
Ray, 2004; Segerstrom & Miller, 2004), which can
lead to a variety of deleterious consequences.
As a result of this demand for influencing others
and the increased responsibility of the position,
leaders experience a form of stress called “power
stress” (McClelland, 1985) to differentiate it from
other causes or types of stress, such as stress that
might result from loneliness, being rejected, fear of
failure, or physical exhaustion. That is, power
stress is part of the experience that results from the
exercise of influence and sense of responsibility
felt in leadership positions. In addition, to be ef-
fective as a leader requires the regular exercise of
self-control: placing the good of the organization
above personal impulses and needs (McClelland,
1975; McClelland & Boyatzis, 1982). This exercise of
self-control is also stressful (Baumeister, Heather-
ton, & Tice, 1994; Sapolsky, 1999, 2004), with or with-
out the exercise of influence. In other words, to
inhibit an impulse, deny an urge, or hold back from
saying something requires exertion of energy, con-
sciously or unconsciously. A person must take at-
tention from other thoughts or functions to focus on
controlling a thought, feeling, or action. To sustain
the self-control requires constant exercise of this
focus and energy. Therefore, effective leadership
invokes both power stress and stress from the ex-
ercise of self-control frequently resulting in the
likelihood of the experience of chronic power
The experience of power stress, like most forms
of stress, arouses the sympathetic nervous system
(SNS), which initiates the classic fight or flight
physical response (Cannon, 1935; Steele, 1973, 1977;
McClelland, 1985; McClelland & Jemmott, 1980; Mc-
Clelland, Ross, & Patel, 1985; McClelland, Floor,
Davidson, & Saron, 1980; Schultheiss, 1999; Schul-
theiss & Brunstein, 2002; Schultheiss & Rohde, 2002;
LeDoux, 2002; Sapolsky, 1999, 2004; McEwen, 1998).
Physiological Responses to Stress
When stress causes the arousal of the SNS, it re-
sults in increased secretion of multiple neurotrans-
mitters including epinephrine and norepinephrine,
associated with activation of the body through the
hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) and the
sympathetic-adrenal medullary axis (Sapolsky,
1999, 2004; LeDoux, 2002), as shown in Figure 2.
Individuals experience an increase in systolic and
diastolic blood pressure (DeQuattro & Feng, 2002;
Sapolsky, 2004). At the same time, blood flow is
redirected to the large muscle groups (Sapolsky,
2004). Meanwhile, even neural circuitry is reallo-
cated, in the sense that the brain appears to focus
on those circuits deemed necessary for survival
(LeDoux, 2002) and activation of the right prefrontal
cortex (RPFC) greater than the left prefrontal cortex
(LPFC; Sullivan & Gratton, 1998; Davidson, Jackson,
& Kalin, 2000; Davidson et al., 2003). Cortisol is
secreted from the adrenal gland and causes dys-
regulation of inflammation (Davidson et al., 2003)
in part by decreasing the body’s ability to fight
infection by suppressing cell-mediated immunity
(McEwen, 1998; Saper, 2002; Rosenkranz et al., 2003).
Cortisol has the additional impact of overexciting
neurons and inhibiting the potential growth of
neural tissue through normal neurogenesis (Erick-
son et al., 1998; Davidson et al., 2003; LeDoux, 2002;
McEwen, 1998; Sapolsky, 1996, 1999, 2004; Zull, 2002).
This arousal of the SNS and activation of the
right prefrontal cortex (greater than the left) have
been shown to be related to specific emotions,
such as fear and disgust (Davidson et al., 1990).
Other negative affect, such as feeling depressed or
anxious and “unpleasant engagement with the en-
vironment” has been related to such neural circuits
(Tomarken et al., 1992) as well.
The chronic release of glucocorticoids (e.g., cor-
tisol) from the adrenal gland has immunosuppres-
sive effects (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004; Miller, Co-
hen, Pressman, Barjkin, Rabin, & Treanor 2004;
Petrovsky, 2001; Segerstrom & Miller, 2004). One
study showed that people with the leadership mo-
tive pattern (i.e., high need for power, higher than
the need for affiliation, and high in self-control as
defined in McClelland & Boyatzis, 1982) showed
consistently lower levels of immunoglobulin A (S-
IgA), an accepted indicator of immune system
functioning (McClelland, Locke, et al., 1982). How-
ever, it has also been shown that chronic stress
may enhance immunoglobulin production, leading
to an inappropriate antibody response, thereby in-
creasing the possibility of autoimmune disorders,
such as diabetes (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004;
Miller, Cohen, Pressman, Barjkin, Rabin, & Treanor
2004; Segerstrom & Miller, 2004).
Many common human diseases are attributed, in
part, to overactivation of the SNS and what is often
called a heavy “allostatic load,” including hyper-
tension, myocardial infarction, chronic infections
and peptic ulcer disease, autoimmune disorders,
obesity, influenza, cardiac arrhythmias, heart fail-
ure, diabetes, and susceptibility to cancer (David-
son et al., 2003; McEwen, 1998; Sapolsky, 1999, 2004).
For example, hypertension in young adults is
thought to be due to chronic stimulation of the SNS,
activating norepinephrine pathways from the
brain to the kidneys, skeletal muscle and heart
10 MarchAcademy of Management Learning & Education
(DeQuattro & Feng, 2002). Peptic ulcer disease is
caused, in part, by the presence of the bacteria
helicobacter pylori. In this case, stress decreases
the body’s ability to defend and heal from such
infections and promotes the formation of ulcers;
the immune system is dysregulated by chronic
stress, causing a decline in its function and ensu-
Stress and Sustainability
Extensive studies have shown that the body’s re-
action to stress involves more than the stimulation
of the SNS; it also involves the abatement of the
parasympathetic nervous systems (PSNS; McEwen,
1998; Sapolsky, 1999, 2004). While the sympathetic
nervous system is responsible for the body’s ability
to react quickly and effectively to physical or emo-
tional provocation, the parasympathetic nervous
system is responsible for recovery from such ex-
citement and for keeping the body functioning at
basal levels (i.e., at rest; McEwen, 1998; Sapolsky,
The arousal of stress prepares individuals to
deal with crisis in the short run. With chronic or
repeated activation in the long run, it makes the
body susceptible to infection, myocardial events,
and gastrointestinal distress, as well as disturbing
sleep patterns and other normal human functions
(Sapolsky, 1999). Prolonged exposure to stress and
arousal of the SNS does harm to the body, in effect
draining one’s energy and capability to function
and innovate (McEwen, 1998).
summarized a study suggesting that people high
in need for power will not experience power stress
to the same degree as others. When in power-
arousing situations or roles, they may experience
sufficiently less power stress so as to not show the
same deleterious effects of power stress on the
immune system. But the negative effects of chronic
power stress on other aspects of neuroendocrine,
cardiovascular, or gastrointestinal functions of the
Studies of women suggest a slightly different response to
stress, but one that still involves arousal of the SNS (Taylor et
The Power Stress Syndrome
2006 11Boyatzis, Smith, and Blaize
body, such as those resulting from being in a lead-
ership role, have not been explored in this context.
Some scholars contend that genetic disposition
determines which people are more likely to expe-
rience stress and its negative effects than others
with such genes (Nicholson, 2002). While individ-
ual differences to stress are expected, as are dif-
ferences in the severity of secretions emanating
from arousal of the SNS, the dynamics of gene
expression are believed to have more impact and
may literally override inherited dispositions (E. H.
Davidson, 2001; Lickliter & Honeycutt, 2003; Wil-
liams, Barefoot, Blumenthal, Helms, Luecken,
Pieper, Siegler, & Suarez, 1997). Gene expression
appears to be affected by environmental condi-
tions, behavioral patterns, diet, and self-manage-
ment activities (Williams et al., 1997). Therefore,
many medical researchers now believe that ge-
netic determination may have less impact on cer-
tain physiological processes than the summary of
one’s experiences and surrounding conditions.
Unchecked or unbalanced behavior in leader-
ship positions, especially if the person is arousing
their self-control in order to be effective, will result
in damage over time. This may be experienced and
labeled as “burnout,” “burn up,” “fatigue,” an in-
ternal sense of restlessness or boredom, and other
maladies and illnesses. Due to the impact of
chronic stress on limiting neural functioning and
learning, including the potential for future learn-
ing from neurogenesis (Sapolsky, 2004), we believe
a leader who is effective but experiencing chronic
power stress will lose some ability to adapt, learn,
and stay healthy. As a result, that person will have
difficulty sustaining the mental, emotional, per-
ceptual, and behavioral processes that enabled
him or her to be effective. In this way leadership,
and in particular effective leadership, is less sus-
tainable over time, (as shown in Figure 1). We
therefore suggest that, sustained effective leader-
ship will be adversely affected by the power stress
aroused in the process of fulfilling the leadership
COACHING LEADERS TO BE EFFECTIVE
Research on how effective leaders developed in
their careers continues to point to mentors,
coaches, or those who helped them along the way
(Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002; Kram, 1985; Mc-
Call, Lombardo, & Morrison, 1988). The need for
explicit training and development of managers
and leaders began decades ago as a necessary
human resource practice in most organizations—
longer if you include the ancient Chinese or Greek
practices prior to 300 BC. In medieval times, the
assumption was that a person would apprentice
themselves to someone more experienced and get
trained. Dalton and Thompson’s theory of career
development called upon people in the first stage
of career development to be an apprentice. In a
later stage of their career, they were to become a
mentor and help to develop others (Dalton &
Today, many of these types of relationships are
subsumed under the title of coach. There are ca-
reer coaches, executive coaches, life coaches, par-
ent coaches, and of course, athletic coaches. Lon-
don (2002) reported that there were approximately
10,000 professional coaches worldwide, and that
an estimated 59% of organizations now offer coach-
ing or developmental counseling to their manag-
ers and executives. Discussions in applied psy-
chology, organizational development, and human
resource management, suggest the number of peo-
ple calling themselves coaches is far higher. In all
of these efforts, programs, and human resource
systems, the focus of the coaching is limited to the
person being coached. Our focus here, however, is
on a benefit of coaching that is not often noticed—
the beneficial effect it can have on the person who
is the coach.
THE LEADER AS COACH: COACHING WITH
COMPASSION AS AN ANTIDOTE TO STRESS
For leaders to sustain themselves, the human re-
sponse to stress must be ameliorated. We argue
that the practice of coaching others for their devel-
opment can have this effect. Coaching, along with
the experience of compassion, should ameliorate
the negative physiological and psychological ef-
fects of power stress. In this way, coaching with
compassion is likely to enhance a leader’s sustain-
This major benefit of coaching is dramatically
different than the typical benefit of coaching— de-
veloping a supply of leaders within the organiza-
tion. This benefit derives from a focus on the needs
of the leader serving as a coach.
We define coaching with compassion as “help-
ing others in their intentional change process (i.e.,
achieving their dreams or aspirations or changing
the way they think, feel, and act)” (Boyatzis, 2003).
Coaching others for their development is different
than coaching others strictly for the organization’s
benefit. The latter can be seen as an instrumental
or compliance perspective in approaching others.
For reasons to be explained, we believe coach-
ing with compassion elicits a dramatically differ-
ent neural circuitry and hormonal process than
other types of coaching, mentoring, or helping be-
12 MarchAcademy of Management Learning & Education
havior. It involves a focus on the person being
coached for their development, which may or may
not include a direct benefit to the organization or
holding the benefit to the organization as more
important than the benefit to the individual.
We define compassion as having three compo-
nents: (1) empathy or understanding the feelings of
others; (2) caring for the other person (e.g., affilia-
tive arousal); and (3) willingness to act in response
to the person’s feelings. We view each of the com-
ponents as necessary but not sufficient conditions
of compassion. That is, compassion as we define it
requires the presence of all three components.
This definition is similar to that recently offered
by Bateman and Porath (2003), who drawing on the
work of Frost, Dutton, Worline, and Wilson (2000)
suggested that, “compassion is about allowing
one’s feelings to guide one’s actions in response to
pain experienced by others” (p. 131). Arousal of
compassion as we define it does not assume or
presume reciprocity, equal exchange, or transac-
tional approaches to relationships. In other words,
truly demonstrating compassion toward another is
characterized by the absence of an expectation of
present or future benefits to be received in return
from that individual.
Our definition of compassion also has elements
in common with other previously offered defini-
tions of the construct. Kanov et al. (in press) de-
fined compassion as having three elements, “no-
ticing another’s suffering, feeling the other’s pain,
and responding to that person’s suffering” (p. 6).
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1963) defines
it as “sympathetic consciousness of others⬘dis-
tress together with a desire to alleviate it” (p. 169).
The American Heritage Dictionary (1969) defines it
as “The deep feeling of sharing the suffering of
another in the inclination to give and or support, or
show mercy” (p. 271). The Buddhist definition con-
trasts it with love, “the wish that others may be free
from suffering and the causes of suffering, while
love is defined as the wish that others be happy
and find the causes for happiness” (quote of Mat-
thieu from p. 143, Goleman, 2003:4).
While our definition of compassion shares ele-
ments with each of these other definitions, a key
distinguishing factor of our conceptualization of
the construct is that it incorporates the desire to
reach out and help others regardless of whether
their condition is based on suffering and pain. It is
closer to compassion as the emotional expression
of the virtue of benevolence evident in Confucian
philosophy (Van Norden, 1998), specifically the con-
cept of “ren” (Cua, 1998). Alternate reasons to help
others may include others’ relative distress from
not moving toward desired goals or wanting to
help them extend and reach for their dreams or
new aspirations. Therefore, the experience of pain
or suffering on the part of others is not a necessary
condition for the demonstration of compassion as
we are defining it here.
It is important to note that coaching others does
not always involve compassion. Instrumental
coaching occurs when the coach is offering or pro-
viding help to another person for a purpose other
than the person’s own desire to develop, for exam-
ple, helping someone fill an organizational need or
making an introduction to facilitate a person’s ca-
reer progress. If these acts are done without caring
about the person’s development, then we believe it
would not invoke compassion (as we have defined
it) and, therefore, not arouse the psychophysiolog-
ical response beneficial as an antidote to the
chronic power stress or the learning and health
benefits of PSNS arousal. Providing advice to
someone, or trying to convince that person to ac-
cept a particular assignment, or putting pressure
on them to “fit in” or act more consistent with
organizational norms appears to be focused on
influencing the person to do something— coaching
for compliance. As with the instrumental focus, we
believe this will not result in arousal of the PSNS.
As a possible subset of instrumental coaching,
compliance coaching may engage the coach’s
power needs and, therefore, create an episode of
power stress. Again, this is where our definition of
compassion differs from other types of prosocial
acts, such as proactive prosocial behavior, that
have been shown to be linked to aggression (Boxer,
Tisak, & Goldstein, 2004) and that would as a result
actually arouse more power stress.
Ibarra (1995) discusses the distinction between
instrumental and psychosocial functions of a rela-
tionship, offering that psychosocial functions en-
hance an individual’s sense of competence, iden-
tity, and effectiveness in a professional role. Ibarra
adds that these psychosocial functions stem more
from the nature of the relationship than instrumen-
tal functions such as providing management expo-
sure or advocacy for promotion. Such instrumental
coaching relationships are more common when the
relationships are represented by “weak ties” (Hig-
gins & Kram, 2001). Higgins and Kram further con-
tend that weak ties result in less effective mentor-
ing relationships. Therefore, to engage in coaching
where the primary concern is the achievement of
organizational goals and getting the person being
coached to fit into this scheme, it is likely that
instrumentality will be aroused, which may or may
2006 13Boyatzis, Smith, and Blaize
not contribute to increased stress arousal. But it
will clearly not alleviate nor ameliorate the human
Coaching may involve both caring for the per-
son’s development and serving an organizational
need. In such situations, the instrumental utility of
the coaching act does not necessarily preclude the
experience of compassion. But it also appears that
many in helping roles are not invoking empathy
and caring, but may instead be serving their own
desires or goals. This is seen in the extreme and
often hostile acts of those parents, who when
watching their children’s sports competitions, get
too involved and start yelling obscenities at the
children, the coaches, or the umpires. In such a
situation, they are motivated by their own compet-
itive needs, not the desire to watch their children
grow and develop. Similarly, a college coach, who
is part of the staff of an educational institution,
may forget that his or her role is to develop players
as students and athletes, not merely to win games.
In the process, such coaches may regress to behav-
ior that expresses predominant concern over win-
ning and not development of the players’ talent or
Finally, mandated coaching programs may
merely lead to compliance which is an administra-
tive response that adds to job responsibility and
possibly more stress (or at the minimum indiffer-
ence and apathy on the job). The mentoring litera-
ture (Higgins & Kram, 2001; Kram, 1985) suggests
that such mandated programs invoke an instru-
mental mind-set. As discussed, this approach does
not seem to produce effective mentoring, does not
necessarily elicit compassion in the coach, and
may actually cause additional stress.
Coaching With Compassion
Coaching with compassion, as we are describing it
here, requires a caring relationship between the
coach and the person being coached. A caring re-
lationship is one in which the parties of the rela-
tionship are on the same emotional wavelength
(i.e., are attuned to and in touch with one another’s
feelings), and have a commitment to the other per-
son (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002). Through
this process, a person’s emotional intelligence en-
ables them to establish and promote such caring
relationships (Goleman et al., 2002). However, not
all relationships between leaders and subordi-
nates (or between those who coach others and
those who receive that coaching) will necessarily be
characterized as caring. Along these lines, leader-
member exchange (LMX) theory (Graen, Novak, &
Sommerkamp, 1982) suggests that leaders actually
differentiate between their subordinates and form
different types of exchange relationships with
each of them, rather than demonstrating a single
leadership style across all subordinates. This is
consistent with the previously discussed distinc-
tion between the instrumental and psychosocial
support aspects of relationships discussed by
Ibarra (1995). Originally referred to as the vertical
dyad linkage (VDL) approach to leadership (Danse-
reau, Cashman, & Graen, 1973; Dansereau, Graen,
& Haga, 1975; Graen & Cashman, 1975), the focus of
LMX theory is the dyadic relationship between a
leader and a subordinate. High-quality relation-
ships have been characterized as consisting of rel-
atively greater degrees of trust, respect, loyalty,
liking, intimacy, support, openness, and honesty
than is seen in low-quality relationships, which
have been suggested to be more instrumental in
nature and are more likely to be based on very
specific (even contractual) obligations (Dansereau
et al., 1975; Graen & Scandura, 1987).
Individuals who enjoy a high-quality relation-
ship with the leader are said to be a part of the
leader’s “in-group.” Those individuals, on the other
hand, whose relationship with the leader is of low
quality are said to be members of the “out-group”
(Dansereau et al., 1975). While it has been sug-
gested that, given that they have limited amounts
of time and energy, leaders are only able to estab-
lish high-quality relationships with a select num-
ber of subordinates (Graen, 1976), others have of-
fered that leaders should engage in intentional
efforts aimed at forming high-quality relationships
with all subordinates (cf., Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995;
Uhl-Bien, Graen, & Scandura, 2000). Recent work in
the area of positive psychology and positive organ-
izational scholarship ( Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn,
2003; Dutton, 2003), suggests that, at an even more
fundamental level, every interaction represents an
opportunity to build high-quality connections,
which Dutton and Heaphy (2003) suggest are char-
acterized by feelings of vitality and aliveness, a
heightened sense of positive regard, and felt mu-
tuality (p. 267).
The quality of a dyadic exchange relationship,
as well as the quality of a “connection” can be
measured from the perspective of either party of
the exchange. In the case of LMX, prior research
has most often measured the quality of the rela-
tionship from the perspective of the subordinate
(Gerstner & Day, 1997). For our purposes, however,
it is the perspective of the leader (coach) that is
See also Baker, Cross, and Wooten (2003) for a discussion of
energizing relationships in organizations.
14 MarchAcademy of Management Learning & Education
most important, for the manner in which the leader
perceives the coaching relationship will largely
influence the benefits that he or she receives from
For individuals who do not have a caring rela-
tionship with the leader, interactions may result in
additional stress for both parties. If the leader cre-
ates an overall negative emotional tone in the or-
ganization, or is out of touch with the people
around him or her, then a dissonant or toxic rela-
tionship evolves (Goleman et al., 2002). While the
specific relationship may not be “bad,” the cre-
ation of an overall negative emotional tone in the
organization or sense of disassociation from the
leader results in defensiveness in behavioral rou-
tines (Argyris, 1985). This evokes, it is believed,
neural circuits working in part through the limbic
system, right prefrontal cortex and the commensu-
rate arousal of the SNS, which causes the body to
move into the same physiological reactions as
The experience of compassion evokes responses
within the human body that arouse the parasym-
pathetic nervous system (PSNS), reversing the ef-
fects of the stress response and arousal of the SNS
(Davidson, 2002; LeDoux, 2002; Sapolsky, 2004). This
can operate like an antidote to stress, as shown in
Caring relationships are the key to arousal of the
PSNS. In studies, caring for others and feeling
cared for has been associated with lower blood
pressure, enhanced immunity, and overall better
health (Bartels & Zeki, 2000; Insel, 1997; Sapolsky,
1999, 2004) and a sense of gratitude (Fredrickson, in
press, a; Tugade & Fredrickson, in press). Social
networks and social capital have both been found
to decrease mortality rates in human population-
based studies (Berkman, Kawachi, & Kennedy,
1999; Kawachi et al., 1996, 1997). In primate studies
it has been found that nurturing bonds between
parents and their offspring increases the length of
survival of the parent— both for males and for fe-
males. In most primate species the female is the
primary caregiver and the females have a signifi-
cant survival advantage. However, in owl monkeys
the father is the only parent to carry and care for
the offspring, giving their males a strong survival
advantage over their females (Allman, Kumar, &
Hasenstaub, 1998). Cardiac patients with pets to
care for have greater survival rates and lower mor-
bidity profiles than those without pets because the
decreased frequency of SNS activation (Fried-
mann, Katcher, Lynch, & Thomas, 1980).
The PSNS helps maintain the body’s status quo
during times of quiescence, such as during sleep-
ing and eating. It is also responsible for the coor-
dinated response used to reverse the effects of the
stimulated SNS after a stressful interaction (Mc-
Ewen, 1998; Sapolsky, 1999; Schulkin, 1999). Caring
relationships cause a decrease in SNS reactivity
by way of oxytocin and vasopressin’s release from
the hypothalamus (Carter & Altemus, 1997; Insel,
1997; Schulkin, 1999). Oxytocin decreases the hypo-
thalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis and increases
parasympathetic activity. The actions of oxytocin
have been shown to reduce blood pressure, and
reduce stress reactivity, reducing the chemical re-
sponse elicited by stress and reversing its harmful
effects on the body (Insel, 1997; LeDoux, 2002). So-
cial interactions can therefore down-regulate an
individual’s SNS response to stress, both in the
presence and absence of the caring figure by in-
creasing the basal level activity of the PSNS (Dia-
mond, 2001; Sapolsky, 2004).
It is believed that during the experience of com-
passion, a person will more likely have neural
circuits moving through their left prefrontal cortex
(LPFC), greater than the right (R. J. Davidson, 2002;
Goleman, 2003; Rosenkranz et al., 2003). These neu-
ral circuits have been shown to relate to emotions
such as elation and amusement, and people re-
porting feeling excited, enthusiastic, and inter-
ested (Ashby, Isen, & Turken, 1999; Davidson et al.,
1990; Ekman, Davidson, & Friesen, 1990; Fredrick-
son, 2001; Groopman, 2004; Tomarken, Davidson,
Wheeler, & Doss, 1992). The effects evoke a mild
sense of euphoria and well-being, similar to the
sense of hope associated with thought patterns
predominating in part in the LPFC (Insel, 1997). For
example, viewing photographs of a person one
loves results in relatively more activation of the
left prefrontal cortex and related areas than view-
ing photographs of friends (Bartels & Zeki, 2000). In
addition, the decreased functioning of the leader’s
immune system can be reversed by the arousal of
the PSNS and other related processes (Jemmott,
1982; McClelland & Kirshnit, 1982).
Therefore, it can be expected that coaching oth-
ers for their development will arouse compassion
in a leader, along with the corresponding psycho-
physiological effects. Moving back and forth be-
tween these two aroused states (i.e., aroused power
stress and aroused compassion) should, in turn,
enable sustained leadership effectiveness, by al-
lowing the leader to maintain him- or herself in a
healthier state and have access to eliciting more
Other Benefits of Coaching With Compassion
Another benefit of coaching with compassion is
that the leader will be less focused on him- or
2006 15Boyatzis, Smith, and Blaize
16 MarchAcademy of Management Learning & Education
herself. This decrease in self-preoccupation could
help alleviate some of the tendency toward self-
aggrandizement that comes along with the power
of being in a leadership position. The CEO disease
describes the likelihood of those around a leader
not wanting to relay accurate but negative or crit-
ical information (Byrne, 1991; Goleman, Boyatzis, &
McKee, 2002). The leader becomes blocked off from
criticism and disconfirming information about
things such as his or her strategy, vision, or per-
sonal style. In the process, if the leader is bom-
barded with positive accolades, a preoccupation
with the self can result in escalating egocentrism
and even narcissism.
Coaching others with compassion can be a par-
tial antidote to narcissism, because the leader is
genuinely focused on others. At the same time, the
improved quality of the relationship with others
around the leader could result in people being
willing to provide the leader with disconfirming,
negative, or even critical reactions. Put in a more
positive way, coaching with compassion could re-
sult in the leader being more open to others and
their ideas. It allows or invites more self-aware-
ness by moving a person into a relational world in
which to get feedback and have to look at it. Limits
on neural activity and inhibition of neurogenesis
under chronic power stress will, on the other hand,
lead to a more defensive posture toward critical
feedback. This may be why more effective manag-
ers seem able to solicit negative feedback (Ashford
& Tsui, 1991)—they are physiologically and percep-
tually more open to new ideas. This, along with the
ability to adapt to or accommodate change, repre-
sents what Hall and Mirvis (1996) suggested are the
key competencies demanded of individuals in the
new workplace environment.
Therefore, to sustain leadership effectiveness,
leaders should emphasize coaching as a key part
of their role and behavioral habits. Through emo-
tional contagion (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson,
1994) compassion and developing others is likely to
spread and become a norm. This could result in the
formation and maintenance of effective develop-
mental networks as described by Higgins and
Kram (2001), as well as the satisfaction of some of
their social motivation or needs (Lawrence & Nohria,
2003). It would also have the organizational benefit
of developing other leaders and helping the future
viability of the organization. The resulting culture
would feel more supportive of and developmental
for people’s careers (Dutton, Frost, Worline, Lilius,
& Kanov, 2002; Hall & Associates, 1996; Kanov et al.,
Other Sources of Compassion
Although we have focused on the benefits of
coaching others within the organization with com-
passion, there are clearly ways to arouse compas-
sion besides coaching others. For example, a
leader could instead do work outside of the organ-
ization, such as volunteer work that could arouse
compassion (i.e., counseling high school students,
activity in a nonprofit organization). But the time
needed may conflict with organizational demands,
and therefore, may not become a regular part of
the leader’s weekly or monthly activity. Thus,
while socially important, these types of activities
may distract the leader from the organization’s
mission and strategy and put additional time de-
mands on him or her, resulting in more stress. In
this sense, these outside activities may not be as
organizationally efficient as effective coaching of
others as a source of arousing compassion.
In addition to leading the organization in its
primary purpose, a leader can also become in-
volved in its philanthropic interests. Although so-
cially important, this contribution may distract
leaders from the core of the company’s strategy,
which results in increased compartmentalization
of their lives. People in the organization may also
feel less valued than their leaders’ philanthropic
interests and come to view this behavior as a sign
of lack of interest, confidence in, or commitment to
the organization. It thus appears that while dem-
onstrating compassion outside of the organization
may indeed ameliorate the power stress experi-
enced by leaders, to help and not cause additional
stress, the activities would have to be structured
and perceived by others as central to the organi-
Another way to reverse the harmful effects of
arousal of the SNS that may be less distracting to
leaders is the regular practice of relaxation tech-
niques or meditation. Relaxation training has been
found to decrease blood pressure, heart rate, and
angry thoughts in patients with raised levels of
norepinephrine (Hagaa, 1994), possibly by retrain-
ing patterns of SNS response or by eliciting an
increased basal tone of the PSNS (McCraty et al.,
1995, 1998). Researchers have found relaxation to
be most effective when one focuses attention out-
side of oneself, but within the living world (Katcher
et al., 1983). Meditation is currently under study as
a means to change the functioning of the immune
system and to decrease reactivity to stress, most
likely as an activator of the PSNS (Davidson et al.,
2003; Rosenkranz et al., 2003). Relaxation or medi-
tation activities do not have the additional benefit
of providing a cadre of future leaders for the organ-
2006 17Boyatzis, Smith, and Blaize
ization in that they do not directly help the devel-
opment of others. Engaging in these activities may,
however, facilitate a leader’s efforts to show com-
passion for others within the organization while
operating in a stressful role.
Compassion Fatigue—Can Leaders Care Too
While we have suggested that the demonstration
of compassion through the coaching of others may
increase leaders’ sustainability by reducing the
negative effects of power stress, it is also possible
that compassion can be too arousing and actually
result in an increase rather than a decrease in the
stress effect. Compassion fatigue occurs when the
experience of compassion becomes a burden, thus
stimulating more stress, rather than less (Cordes &
Doughtery, 1993). Also known as compassion burn-
out, secondary traumatic stress (STS), or vicarious
traumatization, this phenomenon has been re-
ported primarily in the studies of elderly caregiv-
ers of other elderly and social workers, and in
reaction to major tragedy, such as 9/11 (Jenkins &
Baird, 2002; Kinnick et al., 1996). We use the term
and concept here in the context of the leadership
For a leader, compassion fatigue could be the
result of the burden of responsibility for showing
compassion toward many specific individuals.
This condition could also result from handling the
pain and suffering of others for too long or in too
intense an environment (Frost, 2003). The symp-
toms include energy depletion, emotional exhaus-
tion, reduced personal accomplishment, and de-
cline in compassionate feelings toward others. It
represents the emotional overload that results
when one gets overinvolved emotionally, overex-
tends oneself, and feels overwhelmed by the emo-
tional demands imposed by others. In this way,
compassion fatigue for a leader might result from
the sum of many one-to-one encounters, such as
occur in downturns or major crises (which are
stressful in and of themselves to the leader) by
asking the leader to share in many others’ pain
and continually offer care and sympathy.
Compassion fatigue as described here is much
more likely to result from the demonstration of
compassion in response to the pain and suffering
of others than it is from the experience of compas-
sion associated with coaching others for their de-
velopment, including assisting them in realizing
their dreams and aspirations (see Cote & Morgan,
2002 and Fredrickson 2001, 2003, in press a and b for
a discussion of the differential impact of dealing
with positive versus negative emotions). Frost
(2003) also suggests that “people who handle the
emotional pain of others might themselves become
vulnerable to that very same pain” (p. 4). Frost
further adds that burnout from dealing with the
pain and suffering of others might be even greater
for the top leaders of an organization.
It is also possible, however, that leaders could
become preoccupied with coaching and caring for
others even in a strictly positive sense (i.e., in sup-
port of hopes, dreams, and aspirations), which, if
carried to the extreme, could have a similar effect
of creating stress due to compassion fatigue. Once
this occurs, there is the risk of losing sight of the
organization’s mission and their leadership role,
further contributing to (rather than decreasing) the
experience of stress. Thus, if a leader experiences
an excessive burden of responsibility because of
experiencing compassion at extremely intense lev-
els, frequently, or for an extended duration, then
additional stress may be elicited, potentially ne-
gating the positive effects of the experience of com-
CONCLUSION AND IMPLICATIONS
Theories of leadership and leadership develop-
ment can become more holistic and comprehen-
sive if they incorporate psychophysiological inter-
actions. Without such development, we will
continue to create models of effective leadership
that may not be sustainable and that may actually
harm leaders. We offer that leaders are more likely
to be effective and resist the effects of chronic,
power stress if they are physiologically and psy-
chologically balanced. We further suggest that
leaders who coach others with compassion will
stimulate internal processes that enable them to
balance the toxic effects of power stress inherent
in their roles as leaders and in performing the role
effectively. Thus, coaching with compassion may
provide the platform for sustainable leadership ef-
fectiveness and an effective approach for develop-
ing leaders—to teach them how to effectively en-
gage and develop other leaders.
We also believe the integration of coaching,
compassion, and leadership would result in a
steady stream of capable leaders for the organiza-
tion. A balanced physiological and psychological
state for these leaders should enable the sustain-
ability of their energy, focus, and talent. This could
also become a new component of the organiza-
tion’s culture. The culture would be one in which
everyone is trained and socialized in the need for
coaching others with compassion. This would re-
sult in more emotional intelligence being demon-
18 MarchAcademy of Management Learning & Education
strated within the organization, and we believe,
more sustainable, effective organizations. The
challenges for universities or corporate universi-
ties would be to encourage compassion in the de-
velopment methods. This may require more rela-
tional approaches to leadership development with
less dependence on theory and research, or case
studies alone. Coaching, beyond the traditional
notion of advising, would become a crucial peda-
gogical method. This may put pressure on faculty
and training staff to update and retool their skills,
role perspective, and attitudes.
We believe the implications for research on
leadership and leadership development are many.
First and foremost, careful, longitudinal studies
must be conducted to support or refute the theoret-
ical propositions presented here. For example, do
leaders who coach others for their development
experience compassion? Do leaders who experi-
ence compassion have less negative effects of
chronic, power stress? Does this enable such lead-
ers to be effective and be effective over sustained
periods of time?
Second, greater use of physiological measures
should be considered when conducting leadership
or leadership development studies. Any one of the
following would help build a holistic image of the
leader: pulse rate, blood pressure, right versus left
prefrontal cortex activity, testing for levels of se-
creted epinephrine and norepinephrine (urine cat-
echolamines), saliva tests for immunoglobulin A
and cortisol or serum tests for other hormones,
such as oxytocin. A less intrusive way to collect
relevant information would be to longitudinally
follow a person’s medical history, documenting in-
cidence of acute occurrences of ulcers, respiratory
infections, and short-term memory loss, as well as
the onset of chronic diseases such as diabetes or
hypertension. A number of studies published in the
management literature over the past 2 decades
have included a variety of physiological measures
(e.g., Fox, Dwyer, & Ganster, 1993; Perrewe et al.,
2004; Schaubroeck & Merritt, 1997; Steffy & Jones,
1988). However, a more holistic approach to the
study of effective leadership will require greater
and more consistent use of such measures.
Third, a holistic theory of leadership needs ho-
listic methods. This calls for interdisciplinary re-
search on leadership. It encourages new forms of
collaboration between schools of management
and other schools or departments, such as psychol-
ogy, medicine, nursing, and social work. This
would result in studying the effects of leadership
development activities intended to prepare for
managing the stress-recovery cycle. It would also
extend research into the pedagogy that might help
leadership development be more holistic itself.
Fourth, experiments could be designed to dis-
cover the degree to which a person feels better,
experiences compassion and activates their PSNS
when coaching— or being coached. The effects of
caring versus instrumental relationship and
coaching could be examined this way.
Fifth, epidemiological studies of leaders could
be conducted with historical records and inter-
views. They could help to establish the presence of
chronic SNS arousal in leaders, and in particular
effective leaders. Further studies could examine
these effects in effective leaders shown to have
sustained effectiveness. It would be useful to ex-
tend the existing literature on the importance of
mentoring and coaching to study sustained, effec-
tive leaders. For such research to go beyond cur-
rent insights, longitudinal designs would be re-
quired rather than merely retrospective studies.
Because of the likely discontinuous and nonlin-
ear relationships among many of the variables
mentioned above, the research would have to be
conducted in such a way as to examine and docu-
ment such effects. The multidisciplinary methods
would require caution in design, as well as in
sampling, but most of all in the analysis and pre-
sentation of the data.
The primary implications for practitioners—
whether management consultants or educators at-
tempting to develop leaders— of the ideas pre-
sented here are that we should train leaders to be
compassionate coaches. We should help them in-
corporate these activities into their expectations of
the role responsibility of a leader. The coaching
should be for the development of the other people,
not only for instrumental, organizational longevity,
or performance reasons. In management educa-
tion, the curriculum must be moved beyond teach-
ing about leadership to developing actual leader-
ship capability. This should include development
of the ability to coach others to be leaders.
In order to coach with compassion, leaders need
to care for others around them, and not see them as
a burden and responsibility. Since this often in-
volves liking the people, it may require leaders to
choose carefully who they will coach and who they
will encourage others to coach. At a minimum, we
should consider the incorporation of training and
practice in techniques to arouse the PSNS to help
prospective leaders develop the ability to renew
themselves before they are in roles that arouse
chronic power stress. In this way, the leader can be
sustained and live to lead another day.
2006 19Boyatzis, Smith, and Blaize
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Richard E. Boyatzis is professor in the Departments of Organizational Behavior and Psychol-
ogy at Case Western Reserve University. Also a visiting professor at ESADE and London
Business School, Boyatzis researches emotional and cognitive intelligence competencies,
their measurement, development and impact on performance, and intentional change theory.
2006 23Boyatzis, Smith, and Blaize
Melvin L. Smith is assistant professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve
University’s Weatherhead School of Management. Smith received his PhD in organizational
behavior and human resource management from the University of Pittsburgh. His research
interests include social capital, social exchange relationships in organizations, and work-
Nancy Blaize (Tresser) is medical director of Imalux, a biotechnology company based in
Cleveland. She is a board certified neuropathologist. She has an MD from the University of
Michigan and an MBA from Case Western Reserve University. Her published work currently
focuses on the use of new imaging modalities in health care.
24 MarchAcademy of Management Learning & Education