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Compassionate Leadership

It begins with self-compassion and ends with contributing to the greater good.

Key points

  • Compassion can be seen as a four-step process: awareness, connection, empathy, and action.
  • The element of action is what takes compassion beyond feelings of empathy or concern.
  • Self-compassion is the starting point for compassionate leadership.
  • Research shows that there is no tension between compassionate leadership and results.
Photo by Samantha Garrote from Pexels
Source: Photo by Samantha Garrote from Pexels

Through research into Empathic Leadership, I’ve enjoyed exploring related styles like Compassionate Leadership. The Center for Compassionate Leadership seemed a good place to learn from. The Center’s founder, Laura Berland, and co-founder, Evan Herrel, kindly agreed to answer my questions, before hosting a virtual Global Compassion Gathering that begins at noon (ET) on July 15.

Is compassion related to empathic concern?

EVAN: We consider compassion to be a four-step process: Awareness, Connection, Empathy, Action. Connection is very similar to positive regard. So, the middle two elements, connection and empathy, comprise empathic concern as we understand it.

What about Action?

EVAN: The distinction between empathy or empathic concern and compassion is the intention to move to action. We value the work of Singer and Klimecki on the neurological difference between empathy and compassion: that empathic responses are observed to activate in pain regions of the brain, while compassion activates in the reward region.

How do we become more compassionate?

LAURA: The beauty of compassion is that we were born this way! Showing compassion and caring for each other is one of the key evolutionary shifts that enabled us to thrive as a human species. While Darwin is known for the role of competition in survival, his later work established the importance of cooperative communities.

Can you define compassionate leadership?

LAURA: It means using the lens of compassion as your guiding principle. Practically speaking, it means treating those you lead with compassion, in all situations, and creating a culture of compassion that supports the flourishing of everyone within that culture. This orientation overrides traditional hierarchal leadership, where winning at all costs, competition, and profits are the starting points. Research shows that there is no tension between compassionate leadership and results.

Is there a danger that only compassionate people will tune in to your message?

EVAN: We observed much more resistance to the idea before the global pandemic. Now that we are all moving through this massive collective challenge and continue to experience the devastating failure of so many systems, there is a new openness to how we rebuild in a new way.

Thankfully, most leaders trust data and science. An explosion of academic and business research allows us to present an evidence-based rationale in support of compassion and compassionate leadership. If anyone is truly stuck in an old paradigm, we let them be. They will feel the call to change or not. There is no convincing or proving necessary. Leaders will grow and expand on their own timeline or eventually stagnate.

Is developing compassion in leaders difficult?

LAURA: Even compassionate leaders cite self-compassion as a major challenge. Many leaders get the importance and benefits of showing compassion for others but fail to prioritize their own needs, wellbeing, and compassion toward themselves. This is why we teach compassion from the inside out; starting with self-compassion.

Do the systems in place inhibit the rise of compassionate political leaders?

EVAN: The prevailing systems reward non-compassionate behaviors. Developing compassion in people motivated by power is more difficult. We need more organizations like Compassion in Politics.

Thankfully, we have examples of compassion in politics. Jacinda Ardern, in New Zealand, is often described as both an empathic and compassionate leader. Other examples seem predominantly female. Are there gender differences regarding compassion?

LAURA: When we think of compassion as only care and nurturing, the scales still tip toward these feminine qualities. However, when we look at the full spectrum of compassion in action, including effective systems change, it requires traditionally masculine qualities of strength and courage as well.

A common initial reaction to the idea of empathic leadership, is that empathy can make a leader weaker? I refer people to the science that demonstrates that empathy makes a leader more popular, powerful, and successful. Do you get the same initial reaction to compassionate leadership?

EVAN: Yes. And we give them the same response you do. It’s not just empathy/compassion leaders fear but also showing vulnerability. While you may fear that showing vulnerability makes you appear weak, the evidence shows it makes you appear human, more likable, and more effective at creating successful teams.

Empathic leaders may employ empathy to understand rivals, and use this knowledge against them. Is a compassionate leader less competitive?

EVAN: No, we don’t believe so. Compassionate leaders would act much like the empathic leaders you characterize in your question. Compassionate leadership does not negate competitive advantage in the marketplace. In fact, it creates a more effective and successful workforce.

Leaders in sport have told me that some individuals may take advantage of their style. I’m also thinking of nurses in the NHS in the UK. There’s a pay dispute at the moment. The UK Government seems to take advantage of the compassionate nature of people in caring professions. Can we be too compassionate?

EVAN: We don’t believe you can be too compassionate. Compassion requires kindness, wisdom, and courage. To be taken advantage of, one of those is out of balance — usually wisdom or courage. It’s not compassionate to be taken advantage of in order to help someone else. One needs to have the wisdom to recognize the consequences of submitting to the wishes of someone else. One also needs the courage to say no to someone. Good boundaries are compassionate.

Maybe nurses can lack self-compassion?

LAURA: We start by teaching that understanding and experiencing the practice of self-compassion will enhance the ability to be compassionate to others. Many people, especially in the caring professions, carry limiting beliefs about how and why it is more important to care for others in advance of their own needs. When people recognize that we often respond to our own suffering with less kindness and understanding than we respond to another’s suffering, they can take steps to enhance self-compassion.

Finally, do you have advice for any leaders considering a more compassionate approach?

LAURA: We encourage leaders to be open and courageous in their exploration of compassionate leadership. Understand the evidence: Compassion makes you more present, aware, happier, and less stressed. Compassionate leadership culture, skills, and practices create organizations of safety, connection, and belonging that foster individual flourishing and better organizational outcomes. Compassionate leadership also contributes to the greater good.

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