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Issue #10 CC E-News
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by Bill Cropper, Director - The Change Forum
Extracts from Conversational Coaching E-NEWS Issue 10,
The Change Forum, Summer '08/09
Compassionate Leaders – a
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
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
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?
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 emotions1. For
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
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!
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The Components of Compassion…
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
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
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 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,
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
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.’
Back to top
Compassion – reviving ‘a
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 Compassion5, 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.
© 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
Back to top
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,
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
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
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