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Leadership + Business

Compassionate Leaders: a New Breed?

by Bill Cropper, Director

Most leaders are still trained to lead with their heads, not their hearts. They’re conditioned to put business before benevolence. The public profile of a good leader espoused in the press, for instance, routinely includes attributes like 'tough, decisive, hard-nosed, quick-to-judge, ultra-rational and results-driven'.

Yet this is changing. Organisations are now showing interest in a more compassionate style – in leading with feelings.

Let’s face it, there hasn’t been a lot of room for compassion in most workplaces – and the shift to a more emotionally intelligent, empathetic and caring style of leadership invokes questions like: 'What is compassion? What does it mean to be a compassionate leader? How can I inspire others to create a more caring culture? Will being more compassionate mean going soft, diluting hard decisions and watering down a solid focus on outcomes?'

There’s no simple definition of compassion and ‘task-first’ leaders used to concentrating on systems, structures, facts and figures can feel ill-equipped journeying into this relatively unknown territory.

Here’s some ideas on how to spot a compassionate leader. How many have you seen around your workplace?

Compassionate leaders are ‘in-tune’ feeling-wise.
What they say and do resonates – and they always have the time to engage in connective conversations with others.

Compassionate leaders manage their moods.
They know feelings are catchy and they use positive emotions to inspire, not infect others with negative, de-motivating feelings.

Compassionate leaders put people before procedures.
They’re willing to set aside or change outmoded or emotionally dissonant rules and regulations for the greater good.

Compassionate leaders show sincere, heartfelt consideration.
They genuinely care for the well-being of others and have a humane side that puts other’s needs before theirs.

Compassionate leaders are mindful.
They’re awake to their own feelings, aware of the impact they have on others and attentive and sympathetic to the needs of others.

Compassionate leaders are hopeful.
They move others passionately and purposefully with a shared vision that plays on the positive, energising and renewing power of hope.

Compassionate leaders have the courage to say what they feel.
They convey feelings, fears, even doubts, authentically, which builds trust and makes them approachable.

Compassionate leaders engage others in frank, open dialogue.
They speak candidly with truth, humility, respect and conviction – and make it safe for others to do so too.

Compassionate leaders are connective and receptive.
They read what other people are thinking and feeling. This empathetic connection keeps them in touch and in tune.

Compassionate leaders take positive and affirming action.
They act out compassion. They don't just pay lip service to a cause, they make a promise, act on it and keep it.

Of course we’re conditioned to think that if we show compassion in business, people will think we’re vulnerable, have no backbone and exploit our ‘weaknesses’. We’ve spent decades becoming more businesslike. In the process, many have encased themselves in some pretty impenetrable, compassion-proof armour. Is it time to climb out and make workplaces more humane? (The more effective ones have always been like that anyway!).


Is there a place for a new breed of compassionate leader?

While we’ll no doubt never rid ourselves of the hard-hearted, bottom line exec, we may find those who exhibit the characteristics of a compassionate leader may just fare better in handling crises, inspiring people to committed action and communicating more effectively in the more challenging economic, ecological and social climate this new millennium brings.


Want to be Happy? Cultivate Compassion…

Stimulated by a series of dialogues sponsored by the Dalai Lama between practitioners of Buddhism and western psychologists, a number of leading researchers are now studying the positive psychology of compassion. Notable amongst these is Dr Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin.

Davidson’s deep brain scans of Buddhist meditators using functional M.R.I. and advanced EEG analysis, confirm that meditation strengthens connections in those parts of the brain that calm feelings like fear or anger and help regulate emotions. For example:

He found a ‘Loving-Kindness’ meditation that focuses on empathetic and compassionate feelings about oneself and others 'lights up' the left prefrontal cortex – part of the brain associated with feelings of joy, happiness, enthusiasm and resilience. (The right, by the way, is linked with fear, anxiety, sadness and depression.)

Davidson's research suggests regular meditation may ‘rewire’ the brain to give greater predominance to the 'happy' left – and that compassion is connected to generating feelings of happiness.

When he graphed brain waves of one monk volunteered by the Dalai Lama, he was amazed to find the highest level of activity ever seen in brain areas associated with happiness and positive emotions he’d ever seen.

From a Buddhist perspective, all of this comes as no surprise. Buddhist practitioners have always maintained the most powerful way of becoming happy is to cultivate compassion. Western psychology often forgets that happiness is a state of the mind – just as much as depression is – and so its main cause must also be psychological.

While we strive to find happiness outside ourselves – in wealth, success, fame, work or relationships – the truth is that the extent of our happiness depends mainly on our emotions. And compassion is key. It’s possible to train our brain to be happy. So if you want to be happy – don’t worry – and cultivate compassion!


The Components of Compassion…

What makes up compassion? Is there such a big gulf between east and west in our understandings of this term or is there agreement on some of its essential components?

In Daniel Goleman’s 4th book “Destructive Emotions: A Dialogue with the Dalai Lama” which brings together some of the best minds on the subject from both east and west, a discussion develops over the divergence in our mental models of compassion.

The western view is we’re essentially selfish, but rationally have to be nice to others to get what we want – that under threat, stress, scarcity, we drop compassion and our selfish side emerges.

The Buddhist view is we’re essentially compassionate by nature. The Dalai Lama sums it up succinctly: “Every human being has the same potential for compassion; the only question is whether we really take any care of that potential, and develop and implement it in our daily life.”

Despite this fundamental difference, it seems there are more commonalities than we think:

1. Respect and caring is common meeting ground. In The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama defines compassion as a mental attitude based on the wish for others to be free of their suffering, associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility and respect towards the other…”  Boyatzis and McKee in Resonant Leadership4 claim the components of compassion are “being in tune with others” which “involves caring about them – and that is what evokes compassion. You feel curiosity, respect and real empathy.

2. Empathy’s a common denominator, though east and west reverse its relationship to compassion. In Buddhism, compassion is a deep understanding of the emotional state of another (which sounds like the western idea of empathy). Compassion may lead us to feel empathy with another person. In western thought, empathy is what enables us to connect with other people, which can then lead to us feeling compassionate toward them.

3. Selfless and unconditional, both traditions agree, are conditions for true compassion. It’s putting others' needs before your own – not ‘favour-trading’ or expecting something in return for being compassionate: Compassion means giving selflessly. (It) is the emotional expression of the virtue of benevolence, says Boyatzis and McKee, and we must be able to suspend judgement to do this. Back east, The Dalai Lama says True compassion toward others does not change even if they behave negatively. (It) is based not on our own projections and expectations, but on the needs of the other, irrespective of whether another person is a close friend or an enemy.

4. Committed action is a common factor. In fact, say Boyatzis and McKee, compassion is empathy and caring in action – a willingness to act on those feelings and The Dalai Lama resonates: True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment characterised by action, combined with a desire to alleviate, reduce or show special kindness to those who suffer. Loving-kindness is inspiration for such acts.

5. Being of benefit to others is part of both views. Compassionate acts attempt to alleviate pain and suffering of others. In Buddhism, this is the primary focus. In the west, we speak of generosity and being benevolent without any thought of gain, though we don’t have such an exclusive focus on compassion as a pain-reliever.

Being tender-hearted though is not the same as being soft-headed. There are two areas The Dalai Lama highlights about compassion, on which the west still seems vague. He cautions not to confuse genuine compassion, which is constant, with attachment, which is ‘controlling’, ‘unstable’ and changeable: If (they) do something to make you angry, all of a sudden you find emotional attachment evaporating.

Compassion, he confirms, is also a selfish motive – There is also a sense of its being a state of mind that can include a wish for good things for oneself – that it can make us feel good and look after ourselves. Buddhists call this notion 'self-cherishing'. It reminds us of the old adage that ‘To love someone well, you need to love yourself first.’

Compassion – reviving ‘a lost art’?…

Book Review: The Lost Art of Compassion: Discovering the Practice of Happiness in the Meeting of Buddhism and Psychology, Lorne Ladner 2004, HarperCollins, New York

Compassion is often seen as a distant, altruistic ideal cultivated by Christian Saints and Buddhist monks or as an unrealistic response of the naively sentimental or kind-hearted.

When we see it this way, says Lorne Ladner in The Lost Art of Compassion, we “lose out on experiencing the transformative potential of one of our most neglected inner resources” – and his self-proclaimed mission in this book is to rescue compassion from this marginalised view.

Clinical psychologist and long-time Tibetan Buddhism practitioner, Ladner has a foot in both camps so to speak. For we in the west, groomed on fast-fixes to put ‘me-first-and-second’, to be impatient, frenetic, restless, intolerant, egocentric, competitive, insatiably dissatisfied and graspingly materialistic (no – not just a description of your teenagers) – Ladner’s book is a wake-up call – a spiritual whack in the side of the head!  Ladner recalls how he’s never forgotten hearing someone in Los Angeles once ask the Dalai Lama "What was the 'quickest and easiest' way to enlightenment?" The Dalai Lama bowed his head and cried.

Ladner deftly reminds us that genuine happiness won't come from our misdirected striving and craving. He covers some clear, effective practices for cultivating compassion in daily living and shows how its practical application in our life can be a powerful force in achieving happiness.

I set out to write The Lost Art of Compassion”, says Ladner, “in order to provide methods ordinary Westerners can use outside of the Buddhist context. From a psychological perspective, what's important is to become aware of the great value of compassion for our own and others' happiness and then to apply practical methods in our daily lives for actually increasing our feelings of love and compassion.  If we spend time actively cultivating such feelings, then we will quickly begin seeing how they lead to happiness for ourselves… 

When we develop feelings of love or compassion, we may not always be able to actually benefit others in a direct way, but we ourselves do always benefit from such feelings. They serve as causes for our own happiness.  And, as we give more and more time to developing such feelings, then we will naturally begin benefiting others as well. My experience as a psychotherapist has shown me that the expression of simple human compassion is healing in-and-of-itself. By developing deep, powerful feelings of compassionate connection with others, we can learn to live meaningful and joyful lives. Such feelings of joyful compassion teach us how taking care of others is actually a supreme method for taking care of ourselves.

Ladner draws widely from Buddhist methods of mind-training to cultivate positive emotions such as affection, loving-kindness, even-mindedness, empathy, gratitude and particularly of course, compassion – as well as contemporary research to make the case for reviving it. Choose any two pages from his book and you’ll find some useful wisdom there.

While “The Lost Art” could almost be a primer to Buddhism, its real value is as a ‘how-to’ guide. Not a fast-fix, but Ladner offers 10 reflective practices to open up to compassion – emphasising that "you cannot give others what you do not have yourself." His method gradually builds outward from establishing a secure self to caring for others. And he does this without making us feel like we need to reach nirvana next week.


Articles copyright © Bill Cropper - The Change Forum 2009


“The Neuroscience of Emotion” Richard Davidson in Destructive Emotions and how we can overcome them: A Dialogue with The Dalai Lama(pp 179-204) Daniel Goleman 2003, Bloomsbury, London

Destructive Emotions and how we can overcome them: A Dialogue with The Dalai Lama, Daniel Goleman 2003, Bloomsbury, London

The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living – His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C Cutler, M.D. 1998, Hodder, Sydney

Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope and Compassion, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee 2005, Harvard Business School Press, Boston Mas.

The Lost Art of Compassion: Discovering the Practice of Happiness in the Meeting of Buddhism and Psychology, Lorne Ladner 2004, HarperCollins NY

Source: Extracts from Conversational Coaching E-NEWS Issue 10, The Change Forum, Summer '08/09



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