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Compassionate Leadership

The Conscious Cafe Skipton community gathered in October with Emma Slade

Compassion and Leadership:  Bringing these two words and concepts together seems to trigger raised eyebrows. Do many of us fall into the trap of thinking like our speaker Emma Slade confided, that compassion is not a natural companion for leadership?  Perhaps we have seen so many examples of isolated, assertive, alpha male leadership that we just think that it is the norm? A complex discussion was opened up …..

A Journey through Compassion

In October we welcomed international yogi, teacher and author Emma Slade to take us on a journey through compassion, from her Buddhist perspective, and to explore nits potential for supporting leadership roles today. Emma joined our monthly Conscious Cafe Skipton at Avalon Wellbeing the evening before delivering a weekend retreat programme.  Since being ordained as a Buddhist nun, the first western woman to achieve this, she is also known as Ani Pema Deki. She has an incredible story to tell and this is most fruitfully discovered by reading her book ‘Set Free: A Life-Changing Journey From Banking to Buddhism in Bhutan’. She is also CEO of the charity “Opening Your Heart to Bhutan” which she founded to focus on helping children in need in the Himalayan kingdom.

Firstly – what is Compassion?  “Compassion is a mental state endowed with a sense of concern for others and the wish to see that suffering relieved.” This is the Buddhist interpretation. There are three motivations for Compassion:

  • Cognitive – ‘I understand with you.’
  • Affective – ‘I feel for you.’
  • Motivational – ‘I want to help you.’

These motivations, or wishes, will potentially lead to a shift from simply ‘Me’ to ‘Me and You’ which becomes an understanding of ‘US and notions of WE.’  This shift to a more inclusive, collective thinking is perhaps the biggest challenge to our traditional thinking about what a leader is. 

What do we think the role of a leader is?  Emma asked us to consider this question in our Cafe discussion groups and to start with these possible categorisations:

  1. To lead by example?
  2. To give us wisest guidance – to tell us what to do?
  3. To bring out the best in each individual?
  4. To inspire others around a shared vision?

Have we ever considered leadership in the ‘We’ inclusive form?  

Emma said that the Buddhist texts contain only a few references to leadership and mostly in the context of letters to leaders like the King. They mainly focus on the pressure leaders have with a great deal of power and telling people what to do with their “wisest guidance”. 

The seeds of a Compassionate leader can be seen here in the concept of Level 5 Leadership:  Celebrated business author Jim Collins gives us a good insight into a different kind of leadership that is successful. He looked at why some companies go from good to great and the role of leaders in making that happen. Those instrumental in taking their companies to ‘greatness’ were known in Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great” as ‘Level 5 Leaders’ . He said these individuals were able to mix two apparently conflicting qualities; great ambition and personal humility. Their ambition was less personal for the SELF and more for the enterprise.  While Level 5 leaders can come in many personality packages, they are often self-effacing, quiet, reserved, and even shy. Every good-to-great transition in Collins’ research began with a Level 5 leader who motivated the enterprise more with inspired standards than inspiring personality.  Perhaps in this business language we begin to find the seeds of the Compassionate Leader.

How to develop these two qualities?  From the Buddhist point of view, whenever we talk about the conscious development of anything, we talk about the Root (or the ground), then the Path and followed by the Result.  These three levels of development provide a good structure for thought about anything, including our leadership conversation. 

  • More than being nice. The study of Compassion has been very much part of Emma Slade’s journey and personal development. She says people can be quite fuzzy about it not realising that it is something that can be developed.  It is much more than just being “nice”. From a Buddhist point of view it has a very rigorous training. It starts from having a Bodhisattva intention, that is the idea of shifting ultimately from ‘me’ orientated to being connected and ‘we’ orientated. It is an essential shift in thinking. Even when thinking thoughts of peacefulness and calmness, if you are just thinking them for yourself it is not really being compassionate.  That is not going to take you from good to great.  
  • “Who am I doing this for?” You always start any practice thinking about this question. The notion of shifting from me-to-we is always going to be in the Root of it. Once you have shifted your thinking from me-to-we then then how big is We? It’s limitless so it is termed immeasurable. Therefore, in order to respond to that immeasurable number of beings, the mind needs to have an immeasurable quality. That is sensible and appropriate.  The first quality to develop is Loving Kindness which means care and love for other beings.  Once you care and love other beings then of course compassion will follow so it is easier. If you love someone you do not wish them to suffer.
  • Love is the Root, the immeasurable basis. From that compassion will naturally arise, you will not need to have to force it. 
  • The need to be impartial. To start with the idea of immeasurable beings, we do have to develop a mind of impartiality and usually all of our human emotions are highly partial. We do tend to treat people differently when we feel that some people are more deserving of our love than others. 
  • An impartial attitude of loving kindness must be developed, and to do that it is important to recollect the kindness that has been given to us by so many other sentient beings… and particularly in the Buddhist text the usual example is that of the Mother (or main care-giver). The detailed and practical example given of the Mother cites care that is given with some degree of hardship. That loving care required the Mother to have determination, patience and huge dedication of energy and time. All parents will understand this archetypal energy. Hardship is invariably experienced when dedicated care is given, even when this means things like lack of sleep.
  • Expansion of limits. To understand compassion more deeply, we are invited to consider how the Mother was able to expand her own limits to give, and continue giving, when it is difficult. Feeding a child before one feeds oneself is a very practical demonstration of compassion.  In Buddhist terms, we are encouraged to see and treat all beings as if they have been our Mother.   The Buddhist teaching is literal but we can imagine how to apply the metaphor.
  • Understand the Causes. Looking at the Root, the Path and Result, in Compassion practice, one wishes others to be free from suffering AND its causes because it is as important to examine what causes suffering as it is to want to relieve the suffering itself. When we more deeply understand the sufferer and the cause of the suffering, our response can be more appropriate. 
  • Use the Power of Mother Love. The meditation practices for this are highly practical and visual examples of situations where your concern for your own mother would naturally arise. Based on the understanding that the love your mother has shown you, looking at that in very practical ways, understanding that she might be tired and needing support when she can no longer walk or she herself is in pain .. so the texts describe how you can step in to save the suffering of your mother. 
  • The practice of compassion is seen to be perfected when one has done these two things: 
  • Fully purified yourself from self-clinging  
  • From the depths of one’s mind (our most inner mind) one desires all beings to be free from suffering.

The Buddha of Compassion: The visual expression of this perfected compassion is seen in the mind of Chenrezig, the most revered of all Bodhisattva, embodying the Buddha of Compassion. The image of him is depicted as having a thousand arms which is an attempt to show the mind of compassion as being unlimited and immeasurable. The multiple arms help to relieve the many who suffer and the causes of suffering. The palms of the hands have an eye which shows an ability to see, and not turning away, being able to respond. The face is very calm showing that the mind is very stable. Even though this entity is in the midst of profound suffering, the mind is still calm. This image is used frequently in meditation to help provide a tangible focus for developing greater compassion. 

The gathering divided into small groups for discussion then shared feedback 

Feedback on groups discussing Compassionate Leadership:  “Enormous”, “tricky” and “daunting subject”. Most groups found the subject to be huge, getting bigger the more it was discussed.  In a nutshell, it seems to be complicated and triggers many deeper and wide-ranging conversations. 

Different types of Leadership:  Looking around, leadership is not just happening at work in our organisations.  The church, for example, is full of leadership levels and ultimately, the Pope, has recently set an example of true compassion by shifting the Catholic Church from denial that paedophiles were among the ranks, to advocating an acceptance of the truth and a desire for the family of the church to move forward. Family life is led by parents who guide their children with their values.  Good leadership in family life is crucial for the next generation.

Leading by Example:  We are familiar with the old adage that you should “do as you would be done by”. And yet, treating others as we would wish to be treated carries an assumption that what is right for us, is also right for others. A Compassionate leadership approach would also involve empathy and a listening for what is really needed in each situation .. not necessarily what we ‘think” is needed. Our responses will be most appropriate if we take the time to truly understand others and their particular needs.

Compassionate Leaders are Rare:  Compassionate does not seem to be a normal or usual description of a leader. Some people gave examples of their surprise when they came across individuals for whom they had worked whose actions displayed compassion.  

What is a Compassionate Leader?  Compassion is not seen as a management competency, rather, it is a human skill that good leadership benefits from.

A number of traits and values were identified as being part of a profile for Compassionate leaders we have known:

  • Honesty is key
  • Authentic
  • Humility
  • Have integrity
  • They work for the highest good
  • Treat people with equal respect
  • Is able to have courage to acknowledge their own mistakes
  • They take responsibility, not blaming others
  • A person who has the courage to express their core values while at work

Techniques for Embedding Compassion:  Knowing your people. This seems to be a key aspect of being a Compassionate leader. How to do this? Making it your business to know your people is a start … being interested in them and valuing the knowledge you have about them. Informal listening as well as formal conversations helps. Making sure people feel heard by deep listening is important. Taking time to start formal meetings with a “Check-in’ allows people the time and space to share what is going on for them. If everyone has the chance to share it helps to build a sense of loving kindness into the culture.

Compassionate Leadership is also about Tough Love:  It is not about being kind and nice to everyone. Tough decisions have to be made so it is not about softness. There are times when individuals have to be let go from a business, perhaps where they are causing disruption and making others suffer. It was acknowledged that such individuals would be helped but at the bottom line, sometimes it can be more compassionate to removed a person from a job and let them go. Tough love is about caring for somebody enough to help them see the truth.

Compassionate Economics:  When we look at our modern economy based on people being seen as consumers, and goods being produced as cheaply as possible, somewhere in the supply chain, it is likely that there is suffering. Cheap labour can have a high price that the end consumer does not necessarily pay. If we are to create a more compassionate world then it is important to look at what is hidden in our current notion of supply and demand economics. Creating change in this deeply embedded system requires individual acts of courage to ensure everyone is treated with respect. Anyone who steps forward to create change here, would be seen as a Compassionate Leader.

What happens when the Culture is not Compassionate?  Again, few organisations seems to be worthy of the description of being compassionate. In the average office, compassion is not necessarily part of the culture even when the organisation is non-profit. Very often it is not safe for a person to be their authentic self. In these circumstances, it can be even more difficult for an individual to go against the grain and be a Compassionate leader. It takes courage to make a stand and be authentic. Cultures don’t change without a struggle. Today, more and more millennials and young people are looking to work for organisations that do show compassion and allow authentic expression.

What does it take to be Compassionate?  Fully understanding the Buddhist perspective on being compassionate, we can see that it is important to really look and see the reality of the suffering that is happening around us and in the world.  Where do you decide to put your compassion on a daily basis so that you do not feel in overwhelm? Who do you support .. how do you handle moral dilemmas? It is easy to be kind and make someone a cup of tea but when circumstances get really difficult that is when we are really testing and trying helps us. We have to look and see what is happening in our own minds. The Root, the starting point, must be stable to provide a firm foundation for our subsequent response and action. We cannot be wavering in our response to suffering. You can indeed transform your capacity to be compassionate with mind training such as is advocated by the Buddhist teachings.

In summary .. it seems that we are seeing the beginning of change in our leaders and leadership styles. Having a deeper understanding of what compassion actually is, through this Buddhist thinking, and how it can be developed in uses enormously helpful. Starting with daily acts of Loving Kindness, we can bring Compassionate Leadership to our roles.

Conscious Cafe Host Gina Lazenby with Emma Slade (Ani Pema Deki) and Lisa Milnor who organised the weekend retreat

Emma signs copies of her book Set Free