Is Compassionate Leadership a Driver of Huawei’s Business Success?

By David De Cremer and Tian Tao

In this article, the authors trace giant telecom Huawei’s success to its founder’s commitment to compassionate leadership. In a fast modernised wold, how do ancient Confucian and Buddhist teachings of compassion drive you, your business, and the people around you not only to success but to a better life?


More and more voices in the business world are asking to bring more humanity back to the workplace. A desire has emerged to consider employees in their totality, as the person they are, and the stories they bring with them. Where does this sensitivity come from? Are workplaces really that bad? According to Robert Sutton, a Management Professor at Stanford University, workplaces are dominated by a culture of winning and being an asshole. In his book “The No-Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t”, he provides clear examples that as long as you get good results, it is more or less ok for the US corporate world to be an asshole. In line with Sutton’s assertion, research has, for example, illustrated that almost 14 percent of all US employees are confronted with an abusive supervisor,1 and that this dysfunctional type of leadership costs companies an estimated 23.8 billion dollars annually (due to absenteeism, health care costs and decreased productivity).²

The contemporary sentiment thus seems to be that workplaces need to foster more positive relationships. The existence of positive relationships brings many benefits, including improving employees’ physical and psychological health, raising their feelings of optimism, enhancing more learning behaviours, and fostering creativity and trust. To achieve these outcomes it is suggested that we need leaders that can take the perspective of their employees and act in encouraging and respectful ways so that resilience for both employees and organisation is built over the long term. As a consequence, leadership scholars have identified the notion of compassion as important to contemporary leadership practices. There is no doubt that compassion is an important virtue and can reveal many positive benefits, but is it really something that will strengthen leadership effectiveness?

In fact, with a focus on sustainability at all levels of business and society, the leadership type for the 21st century may well be the compassionate one.  

It is a common phrase in the business world that with great power comes great responsibility and one of these responsibilities is to learn to exercise power in controlled and compassionate ways. In fact, with a focus on sustainability at all levels of business and society, the leadership type for the 21st century may well be the compassionate one. Why? What are its benefits? Interestingly, research is demonstrating increasingly that leaders recognising the feelings of others and using that emotional information to support and empower them has positive relational effects that make leaders truly effective. In his book “Leaders eat last: why some teams pull together and others don’t”, Simon Sinek argues that true leaders care about the well-being of others and are willing to be compassionate towards the concerns of those others. This kind of attitude facilitates the flow of the neurochemical oxytocin, which makes that positive and bonding relationships are formed. In other words, compassionate leadership is effective because it promotes trust in the work place, which leads to many positive work outcomes and long-term success. Neuroimaging research has indeed demonstrated that compassionate leaders motivate employees to trust their bosses,3 and make them display high loyalty to those leaders being compassionate.4

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About the Authors 

David De Cremer is the KPMG professor of Management Studies at the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, UK, where he heads the department of Organisational Leadership and Decision-Making. He is also an advisor to the Ethics-based Compliance Initiative at Novartis. Before moving to the UK, he was a professor of Management at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. He is the author of the book Pro-active Leadership: How to overcome procrastination and be a bold decision-maker (2013) and co-author of “Huawei: Leadership, culture and connectivity” (2017).

Tian Tao is co-director of Ruihua Innovative Management Research Institute at Zehjiang University. He is also the author of the book Huawei: Leadership, culture and connectivity” (2017) and founder and Editor in Chief of Top Capital magazine.


1. Schat, A. C. H., Frone, M. R., & Kelloway, E. K. (2006). Prevalence of workplace aggression in the U.S. workforce: Findings from a national study. In E. K. Kelloway, J. Barling, & J. J. Hurrell (Eds.), Handbook of workplace violence (pp. 47-89). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
2. Tepper, B. J., Duffy, M. K., Henle, C. A., & Lambert, L. S. 2006. Procedural injustice, victim precipitation, and abusive supervision. Personnel Psychology, 59, 101-123.
3. Boyatzis, R.E., Passarelli, A.M, Koenig, K., Lowe, M., Mathew, B., Stoller, J.K., & Phillips, M. (2012). Examination of the neural substrates activated in memories of experiences with resonant and dissonant leaders. The Leadership Quarterly, 23(2), 259-272.
4. Qiu, T., Qualls, W., Bohlmann, J., & Rupp, D.E. (2009). The effect of interactional fairness on the performance of cross-functional product development teams: A mulit-level mediated model. The Journal of Product Innovation Management, 26(2), 173-187.
5. Ekman, P, Davidson, R.J, Ricard, M., & Wallace, B.A (2005). Buddhist and Psychological Perspectives on Emotions and Well-Being. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(2), 59-63.
6. Tao, T., De Cremer, D., & Chunbo, W. (2017). Huawei: Leadership, culture, and connectivity. London: Sage. 


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