Many policy makers today accept that climate change poses substantial risks to human and natural systems and that effective adaptation is essential. An important element of adaptation policy making and disaster risk management is how to best combine individual with communitarian approaches to resilience building. The difficulty for effective leadership in this effort resides in comprehending various understandings of, and approaches to, resilience and their real-life consequences for affected populations to deal with disasters induced by climate change. Here, we conduct a comparative analysis of 89 influential disaster management leaders in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. We examine the extent to which their perspectives on resilience and vulnerability are framed by either communitarian or individual-focused notions. Our quantitative analysis of an initial questionnaire and subsequent content analysis of interview transcripts indicate three core findings. Firstly, a tendency towards a communitarian understanding of resilience emerging from the questionnaire was replaced by a more diverse picture during the interviews, including a stronger focus on individual resilience. Secondly, most leaders asserted it was reasonable to expect citizens to be resilient to climate change, particularly when feeling overwhelmed by their responsibility for providing protection during extreme events. Finally, world views among leaders that encourage individual responsibility occluded systemic or reflexive thinking and action to minimize loss. Our study highlights the need for a relational leadership framework underpinned by an ethic of compassion that supports leaders pursuing and implementing policies that reduce harm and suffering in the face of disasters influenced by climate change. Key policy insights Communitarian approaches to resilience and vulnerability provide opportunities for disaster management leaders to better appreciate human suffering and improve their policy advice and decision making to minimize it. Conversely, individualistic approaches drive disaster management leaders’ narrow world views that downplay vulnerability whilst shifting responsibility for resilience too far towards individuals. Governments would be well advised to specifically address the root causes of socio-economic vulnerability in resilience policy frameworks. Disaster management leaders would benefit from an ethic of compassion supported by a relational leadership framework that guides their resilience policy advice and decision making to further minimize suffering from disasters.