December 1, 2021
One leadership characteristic that I believe should be prioritised above all others is compassion because every day I see that the world could benefit from kinder leaders. All other leadership qualities are interconnected with compassion. If we are to feel and demonstrate compassion, it is imperative to have a deeper understanding of connectivity with others and how to develop as a compassionate leader.
It might be worth noting from the start the difference between empathy and compassion, which of course, work hand-in-hand. Empathy is about feeling what another individual feels and connecting with their emotions; but empathy doesn’t require action and is therefore a relatively passive state. Compassion, on the other hand, compels us to act to alleviate the sufferings of others. Originating from Latin, the word ‘compassion’ literally means ‘a suffering with another’. It is about feeling what they feel and being upset because they are in physical or emotional pain.
In An Open Heart (2002) the Dalai Lama says that the first step to a compassionate heart is empathy and closeness to others: “The closer we are to a person, the more unbearable we find that person’s suffering. The closeness I speak of is not a physical proximity, nor need it be an emotional one. It is a feeling of responsibility, of concern, of concern for a person.”
This has been called interdependence, knowing that as living beings, we are interconnected with all other living beings on the planet. Our actions impact them and their actions impact us.
In 2018, I gave a talk at a Chamber of Commerce event in Worcestershire about the need for business leaders to share their thoughts regarding environmental decision-making policies, and the need for us to realise that all humans are interconnected. One of my slides was a picture of around 100 Bangladeshis wading through waist-deep water, having been flooded out of their homes – a direct consequence in that low-lying country of climate change.
Emotion surged in me as soon as the slide came up on the screen and for the couple of minutes that followed, I was unable to speak. Back then I wasn’t used to crying during presentations and so I felt embarrassed, but the impact on the room was profound. It was the first time I had felt and publicly expressed such emotion about the suffering of others due to climate change and whenever I used that slide for the next two years, I had the same reaction. As a company, our efforts to reduce our environmental impact have been even more energetic and driven due to this personal growth in compassion.
In my own example here, the real impact of that experience was due to my having an insight into the suffering of others that compelled me to take action. The connection with the homeless Bangladeshis powerfully propelled me as a leader to change the way we behaved as a company and it kick-started our journey to carbon neutrality, which followed a year later.
I have mentioned emotions and it is difficult to imagine true compassion without an emotional element. And, indeed, that emotional factor can help spur us into action, as I have outlined above. Compassion without action is paradoxical; as Prince said: ‘Compassion is an action word.’
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, in his book Descartes’ Error, shows scientifically how the limbic part of the brain, which is closely linked with our emotions, is a strong factor in our decision making. This is easy for us to understand, as we can probably all remember a time when we have been stirred up by a speaker or seen something in a magazine or on social media that caused us to have an emotional response, leading us to take some form of action. Our compassion will no doubt be drastically reduced without any action; and in order for us to earn the title of compassionate leader, others need to bear witness to our actions – not just our tears.
There is a sense in the West that if we don’t look after ourselves and prioritise our own happiness first, then we will somehow be less happy. The reverse is true. We significantly increase our own happiness and contentment by reaching out to others with compassion, putting ourselves last, not first.
As the Dalai Lama says, ‘If you want to be happy, practise compassion.’ To practise it means compassion in action. Many people discovered this on a global scale during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Many more of us were connecting with others in our communities and cities, and discovering that we expanded our own happiness by doing so. It is no coincidence that several Eastern religions, notably Buddhism and Hinduism, talk extensively about compassion and it is not surprising that there is a more highly advanced sense of community in these regions.
During the past fifty years, the leaders who have stood out as being different are those who have operated with high levels of compassion, as they are few and far between; but if there is one characteristic that leaders need more than any other in this third decade of the 21st century, it is compassion. Are you ready for the challenge?
Every day is an opportunity to practise compassion:
- Find a picture in a magazine or online of people who are less fortunate than yourself. Imagine that you are them, feeling what they are feeling and longing for what they long for, and try to connect yourself with their suffering.
- Next, imagine someone you know but don’t particularly like. Think good thoughts or pray for them, if you are that way inclined. Hope good things for them.
- During the day, reach out with compassion to someone who may need some love at work, at the shops or the school gate. As we actively practise compassion, the feelings will flow too