Compassionate Leaders – a new breed?
Want to be Happy? Cultivate Compassion
The Components of Compassion
Compassion – reviving ‘a lost art’?

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Difficult Discussions

Articles by Bill Cropper, Director - The Change Forum

Extracts from The Change Forum's Conversational Coaching E-NEWS


   Compassionate Leaders – a new breed?…

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'.


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.

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.

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   Want to be Happy? Cultivate Compassion…

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 emotions1. 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.)

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!

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   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”2 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.



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 Happiness3, 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, t

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.’

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   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.

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.”

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



More topics and tips about leading with compassion in our Conversational Coaching E-NEWS Issue 10.


Information on our 2-day advanced EI coaching clinic for leaders: Course Outline: Compassionate Leadership ~ making space for compassion in leadership, life and work

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1 “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

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

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

4 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.

5 The Lost Art of Compassion: Discovering the Practice of Happiness in the Meeting of Buddhism and Psychology, Lorne Ladner 2004, HarperCollins NY    OR    +61-(0)7-4068 7591 or Mob: +61-(0)429-687 513

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