What Role Does Compassion Play in Leadership?

Most of the time when we think about the qualities of successful leadership, and certainly when we read about it, we see references to knowledge, skills, and abilities. Even “enlightened” discussions about the requisites of contemporary leadership that include things like emotional intelligence, vulnerability, entrepreneurial spirit, risk-tolerance, etc., rarely broach notions of how leaders can actually make the world a better place through their actions.

While there are critical strategic and operational reasons why all organizations would want to have the most dynamic, Game Changing leaders possible, there are also both pragmatic and altruistic reasons that organizations would benefit from impactful leadership that expresses compassion and empathy toward both internal and external stakeholders.

Why is this?

Within the U.S. and globally, we are experiencing the greatest political polarization since WWII and greater stress than at any time since the American Psychological Association has tracked it. Additionally, Millenials and Gen-Exers have also made it clear that work-life balance, mental health, and supportive work environments are more important than money or status—and Millenials now represent the single largest generation in the workforce! It makes pragmatic sense for leaders to connect meaningfully to the humanity in the organizations they lead because that may trump compensation and benefits relative to employee retention and engagement (50% of Millenials and 75% of Gen-Xers have left jobs due to an unsupportive work environment). It makes sense altruistically since the only thing that will matter on each leader’s final life scorecard will be how the people he or she associated with benefitted from that association and how the world is a better place as a result of his or her efforts. In fact, it is laughable to think that any of the things we usually stress about on a daily basis (KPIs, growth targets, meeting agendas, etc.) will matter at all in the final analysis.

Importantly, as Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron notes, “Compassionate action involves working with ourselves as much as working with others.” The most insightful leaders of people tend to be those with the most self-awareness and those who are able to be kind to themselves. As Chodron further notes, “You can’t be kind to others unless you can be kind to yourself.”

While you won’t see it in a leadership text or hear it in an MBA seminar, the capacity for empathy and compassion not only sets leaders apart, it supports and empowers the humanity in organizations, which may be the most important thing a leader can do to make the world a better place.

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