The secret sauce for leadership might surprise you

Marika Guderian
4 min readFeb 28, 2021

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” (Jack Welch)

The outbreak of Covid-19 has had staggering negative affects on our health. The pandemic has forced us to live our lives in a way that we never used to. Millions of people have lost their jobs around the world and left us all feeling overwhelmed and disoriented.

In times of crisis like this, the old question of the style of leadership we require comes back as leaders around the world have been put under a magnifying glass to assess how well they dealt with the pandemic. Leadership in times of crisis is even more critical. In my own job as a humanitarian, where I lived in the most underdeveloped countries such as South Sudan, Central African Republic or Mali, staving off famine, I have seen how critical it is to our wellbeing, that leadership is compassionate.

According to a Gallup survey conducted in 2019, 70% of employees feel disengaged and 35% are ready to forgo a pay rise to see their bosses fired. Time to re-think our leadership models. The levels of disengagement were already high before the outbreak of Covid-19, which only worsened.

The secret sauce for successful leadership would surprise you. According to a study that was conducted across 15,000 leaders in more than 5,000 companies that span nearly 100 countries, compassionate leadership combined with wisdom is the key to successful organizations, as they engage staff and focus on adding value to the beneficiary or costumer.

I had the privilege in my career as a humanitarian aid worker, to work in 6 countries across 4 continents, and see up close, what successful leaders do differently. No matter if it was those in charge of large aid operations, delivering assistance to millions of people in the South Sudans, Malis and Yemens of this world, heads of states, senior diplomats or those pushing the boundaries of what we thought is possible with cutting edge innovations, values, creativity and growth was always the center of what they did. The focus on staff and the people they served was driving their actions.

The story behind these successful leaders is not just about success. It points to a different style of leadership. They are the living proof that you can be successful when you lead with your heart and nurture the soul of the mission they set out to accomplish. It is not necessary to sacrifice employees wellbeing to hit numbers, or disregard those we intend to serve.

This type of leadership only comes from a place of your own awareness and understanding what drives others. When you lead, success is all about growing others. The focus shifts to your staff and those you serve. It is no longer about you. With greater presence and awareness about the needs of others, and what motivates them or hinders them to step into their full potential, leaders can increase the performance of an organisation. But compassionate leadership doesn’t avoid the tough conversations. I have seen these leaders when they needed to make tough decisions and laid people off, because of funding cuts or performance issues but with humanity.

Imagine what happens when you work for an organisation, where no one cares about you, values your input and provides feedback for you to grow? Instead, it is about numbers and outputs. Think about the nearly 70% of US employees who are disengaged in the workplace , that’s 7 out of 10 workers. That’s a staggering number and US companies pay for that every year in lost productivity and increased turnover.

Many CEOs and leaders have shown time and time again, compassionate leadership is not “nice to have” but it works. Howard Schultz, the former CEO and Chairman of Starbucks embodied this philosophy in his company, Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, David Beasley, Executive Director of the largest humanitarian organisation, the United Nations World Food Programme, and former Governor of South Carolina, who I had the privilege to work for, or Bill George, Chief Executive Officer of Medtronic, a global leader in healthcare provisions.

Only organisations and companies that have grasped this new model of leadership, where we put staff and those we serve at the center of what we do with compassion, can drive performance and excellence in an increasingly competitive space, in a human way.



Marika Guderian

I am a humanitarian, traveler and inspirational speaker. I have worked in more than 6 countries across 4 continents on humanitarian issues.