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Happiness + Business

Compassion: The Bedrock Of Our Capacity to Serve


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Jan Birchfield, Ph.D. writes about the basis of a shared ethic in leadership—happiness—and why we should look inward before trying to solve the world’s problems.

Social entrepreneurship has given me, and many others, a great deal of hope. With the overwhelming number of social ills in virtually every sector of our society, it is heartening to see the growth of a movement that combines the discipline, rigor, flexibility, and innovation of the entrepreneurial business sector with the core mission of delivering social value above all else, including wealth creation. The movement, in part, challenges innovators to ask, how can we better meet the enormous challenges of the world around us, or, how can we better serve?

The Dalai Lama, in his brilliant work “Ethics in a New Millennium,” postulates that the most basic truth which binds all humans together is our shared wish to be happy and to avoid suffering. He notes that this desire knows no bounds and that everything that we do, both as individuals and at the level of society, can be understood in terms of this fundamental aspiration.

Our universal desire to avoid suffering and to be happy is a starting point for establishing ethical principles. At its most basic, an ethical act is one that does not harm. A social mission, by definition, promotes happiness or addresses some aspect of culture that is harmful. In this way, social entrepreneurship is a gesture of ethics, an attempt to eradicate suffering and increase happiness. Implicit in this model is a recognition that that which is self-serving leads to suffering.

With this as a starting point, we can understand the importance of cultivating our capacity to recognize the suffering of others. This recognition comes through empathy. The Dalai Lama notes that our innate capacity for empathy is the source of our most precious human quality, called “nying je” in the Tibetan language, and roughly translated as compassion. Empathy is a gateway to compassion, our inner tuning fork that allows us to perceive the inner state of others. Compassion is a deeper and more comprehensive construct, encompassing such virtues as love, humility, kindness, gentleness, generosity, and an innate awareness that all of existence is intricately interconnected. Compassion is the bedrock of our capacity to serve.

We are naturally compassionate; it is intrinsic to our nature. Over time, however, compassion is often blocked by negativity that develops and accumulates through the course of a life. To cultivate compassion requires working with this negativity, learning to curb such things as greed, pride and selfishness, and restraining negative emotions such as hatred, anger, and envy. To work with inner negativity requires self-awareness, discipline and self-restraint. At the same time, we can cultivate the virtues that comprise compassion such as generosity, openness, empathy, and kindness.

When we are determined to make this a better world, there is a tendency to focus almost exclusively on the external world as the point of departure. We see a problem, develop a solution, and drive towards that solution to make things better. Yet, for those in a position of leadership, it is crucial to recognize that negativity within us begets negativity without. Any social mission will be best served by a leadership that understands that there is a direct and palpable correlation between the character of those who are leading, the culture that is influenced and shaped by this character, and the quality of the service that is rendered. If this correlation is not recognized we inadvertently create unhappiness and suffering in the world around us, while we are simultaneously focusing on alleviating suffering elsewhere.

Many of us have worked in an organization with a strong mission whose culture negatively impacts the implementation of that mission. For example, I consulted with an organization that was trying to become more customer-focused. As the leadership attempted to implement this change they realized that, in order to develop a workforce that could listen and interface more effectively with customers, their management team needed to listen and interface more effectively with the workers on the frontline. In order to become better communicators, each member of the management team needed to increase self knowledge, developing a greater awareness of their impact on others.

For many leaders within the social enterprise movement, shifting from a habitual focus on the external world to a broader focus that also includes the inner world is a reorientation. It begins with the recognition that our habits of negativity block our innate compassion and inadvertently perpetuate suffering. When leaders cultivate compassion by addressing the negativity within, they strengthen their ability to build compassion into the framework of their businesses. This, in turn, directly impacts the implementation of their mission. This requires humility—the recognition that, while compassion is intrinsic to our nature, few of us are completely free of negativity and, consequently, all of us have inner work to do.


Jan Birchfield, Ph.D. is the founder of Contemplative Leadership Development(CLD), a leadership and corporate culture resource for senior executives and their teams. She has lectured and written extensively for audiences at corporations, academic institutions and non-profit organizations. She is an expert on a personality model that develops emotional intelligence and builds collaboration. 

In 1995 Jan co-founded the Center for Advanced Emotional Intelligence (AEI), where she served for eleven years as the senior partner. With an undergraduate degree in philosophy and a Ph.D. in psychology Jan began her career in the field of international affairs at the African-American Institute in New York. After returning to school to earn her doctorate in psychology, Jan worked for five years in the field of mental health. She is the mother of two children, and resides in Taos, N.M.