The Leader's Almanac: Leadership and Compassion

Jeni_Nichols.jpgEdited by Jeni Nichols, Owner, Sonoma Leadership Systems

Another hot dusty day here in Sonoma. I’m watching the hummingbird busily flitting from one flower to the next on the passion vine outside my window. Smart bird - she’s getting her work done early (like me) before the mercury soars again to 113 like yesterday’s dog day of summer. (According to the Farmer’s Almanac July 3-August 11 are known as canicala days, deriving the name “dog days” from the dog star Sirius.)

With the heat wave in full swing across the country, the topic of global warming isn’t far from my mind. In this Leader's Almanac, I’d like to offer you our musings on “heart warming” in this summer newsletter. This season our theme is Compassion. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama says, “I call compassion the global staple... for all people in every endeavor.” Our premise in this issue is that compassion is a global leadership staple.

A compassionate leader had a big effect on me early in my career. In my salad days as a young eager sales representative at Xerox, compassion was the furthest thing from my mind. I thought leadership meant my manager asking me on a daily basis, “What did you do for me today?”

I was struggling with my sales territory and my “numbers” were diving each month. I had been assigned to the ACE territory, Architects, Contractors and Engineers in Orange County, California, in the mid 70s. The real estate and development market was plummeting and I was losing more Xerox copiers to credit pulls than I was selling. Bob Strayhan, my sales manager, took compassion on me and saw beyond the short term horrible monthly results. He saw the long term potential of a young committed sales person who was being clobbered by circumstances beyond her control. Through an arduous process he secured a special “dispensation” for me and had a one-time adjustment made to my sales quota, an unheard of event in a numbers-driven, bottom-line culture of a sales organization. I think of Bob as my first lesson in being a compassionate leader.

As you read how the writers weigh in on leadership and compassion, you may also recall an act of compassion on the part of a leader in your past. Camille Funk tells about a compassionate leader that she worked for who spent time teaching her how to reach her goals. And just in case you may think of compassion as being weak, read Pat’s article; compassion is essentially empathy with an active slant. Her hierarchy of compassion is a handy framework for leading. Daren Blonski brings us insights about compassion, distinguishing between dictatorship and leadership with compassion being the differentiator. Compassionate thinking and getting out of our heads is good advice from Beth High—getting out of our heads and not playing the blame game. John Ward visually brings us clarity of thinking about all of this, as usual. Enjoy your dog days of summer, and next time your thoughts turn to global warming. . . .think of heart warming. . . . .and compassion.

Compassion: Unleashed

Camille_Funk.jpgBy Camille Funk, Author- Educator

To be a successful leader, there are many basic values and characteristics that must be learned. I am convinced that compassion is the crowning ingredient to a successful leader. Many see compassion as a weakness, but true compassion is the characteristic that converts knowledge into wisdom. A wise leader uses compassion to perceive the needs of those he leads, and astutely determine the course of action that would be of greatest benefit to the individual as well as the team.

I had a leader a couple of years back that displayed to me the most exacting amount of compassion. He was in charge of about 150 people. The work environment expected the utmost valiance in keeping the rules, as well as accomplishing a lengthy list of daily directives. However, in this intense environment, he had such a unique ability to rally us to action, and as such, we would each set additional expectations for ourselves. More often than not, I would get discouraged with my results, knowing that I had worked my hardest, but would often fall short of my additional goals. Each month we would meet with the president, and although he would hold me responsible for my goals and expectations, he would spend valuable time teaching me how to accomplish my goals. The meeting would always end with him telling me how much I was worth and that he saw an amazing future for me.

I believe we all need leaders that hold us accountable but open the doors to truly becoming. This is wisdom and the essence of compassion. Thus, it is my experience that compassion does not necessarily mean allowing for failure but rather unleashing the greatness in people.

Compassion: What's Love Got To Do With It?

Pat_Schally.jpgBy Pat Schally, Sonoma Leadership Systems Emeritus

Compassion—at first glance, it’s a word that conjures up a soft, even sappy feeling in my soul, like a nice, warm bath. But, like a bath, it doesn’t last for very long mostly due to distractions of daily life. It is an emotion that often requires some action on our part, and there’s not usually an immediate pay-off for this feeling. So, what do we do? We feel compassion all right, but it gets quickly buried under our lists of “to dos” and more immediate work and life pressures.

A web search supported my assumption by defining compassion as “A sense of shared suffering, most often combined with a desire to alleviate or reduce such suffering; to show special kindness to those who suffer. Thus compassion is essentially empathy though with a more active slant in that the compassionate person will seek to actually aid those they feel compassionate for.” Ah-ha, so we need to act on this emotion!

In attempting to research this topic further, I searched a sampling of leadership books for some reference to compassionate leadership. Well, surprise! I could not find anything in my personal business library that specifically pointed to this component of leadership. However, I did find some thoughts on compassion in the workplace in David Whyte’s, “The Heart Aroused” and in some religious and spiritual writings referencing Christianity and Buddhism. It’s all there—one of the noble truths, acts of altruism, the Golden Rule, etc.

Being in an investigative mode, my somewhat erratic thought process led me to think about the differences between the words: compassion, feeling sorry and pity. The way I view it is that these three terms form a Hierarchy of Compassion. (1) “Feeling sorry” on the bottom because it’s an emotion that one can feel and not get emotionally involved yet still show some humanity; (2) “Pity” on the next rung because it is often felt when one encounters something or someone who is unfortunate and one might do something about it (donate to a worthy cause for example), and (3) “Compassion” at the highest point as an emotion of the heart, an all-encompassing emotion that puts one into action to try to aid or fix the situation. It is more empathy than sympathy. And in leadership, it puts leaders on a higher evolutionary plane. Not a bad place to be as a leader!

Arthur Jersild said, "Compassion is the ultimate and most meaningful embodiment of emotional maturity. It is through compassion that a person achieves the highest peak and deepest reach in his or her search for self-fulfillment."

Surely there is a distinct place for compassion in the role as a leader. If leaders want their constituents to willingly follow them, then compassion for those whom they lead is critical to shared success. Isn’t it really an act of love? As Jim Kouzes, co-author of The Leadership Challenge, says when he challenges leaders to open their hearts: "Love them and lead them." So, perhaps the real definition of compassion is "Love in action." What actions are you taking today as a leader to fully embrace compassion and integrate it into your leadership style?

Leadership Compassion: The Fine Line

Daren_Blonski.jpgBy Daren Blonski, Leadership Challenge Certified Facilitator

Leadership in its highest form does not exist without compassion. There are many definitions of leadership. For the most part each of us has our own understanding of leadership. For some leadership is about command and control. For others leadership is about being an example and hoping others follow, and yet for others leadership is about helping a group of people relinquish themselves from the oppression of another group. Leadership can be defined in many vast shades of black and white. Yet the highest and most noble form of leadership is only realized when compassion is the major operating paradigm

Strictly speaking, compassion is deeply feeling the pains of others to a point of action. Having compassion for others is an essential attribute of leaders. In a social perspective, it is compassion that fuels the fire of great leaders. It is the pain of others that forces a creative mind to envision a future state. It was the oppression of the African American people that led Martin Luther King Jr. to envision a future where “individuals would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” It was watching the sick and old die on the streets of Calcutta that led Mother Teresa to create the City of Peace; a place where those who were forgotten could be remembered. It is the love that only comes through compassion, that moves great leaders like these to envision the world in a different way.

Leaders know how to mobilize others to envision a common future. Mobilizing others rests on a leader’s ability to understand those he or she is trying to mobilize. It is genuinely understanding and caring by a leader that deems a leader worthy of leading others. As followers we tend to be willing to follow those who we believe understand us.

Some argue that leaders have often led without caring or understanding their people. Perhaps this is true, but I would argue that these people were not leading, they were dictating. There is a fine line between leading others by helping them find voice to a common vision versus manipulating others to follow your vision. The issue is that most leaders and dictators start in a similar place. They begin by developing a personal vision, or an idealized future state. Their visions are based upon their own perceptions of the world. The confusing turning point distinguishing a leader and dictator is found at the point of resonation. The point of resonation is the event or experience when a leader gives voice to his vision. If at the point of resonation, the leader must use coercing and marketing, he is flirting with dictatorship. A leader's vision will resonate with the people, and speak to their needs and desires in such a way that they become mobilized as a group.

By having compassion for others a potential leader will qualify to become a leader. It is the deep caring for others that allows a leader to access the people he or she will someday be honored to lead. And it is this caring attitude coupled with action that makes a leader a leader.

Leadership and Compassion: Getting Out Of Your Head

Beth_High.gifBy Beth High, Leadership Challenge Certified Master

During a recent Leadership Challenge class, we were doing the values cards exercise with the decks that had a blank “create your own value” card. One of the participants used it to fill in her value: Compassion. We spent some time comparing the different values people chose. I asked her about the choice of compassion. Her response went something like this: “Well, I really truly do believe in the talent and experience of my team. But we’re all human you know, and sometimes we fall victim to the pressures at work…from our bosses, deadlines, you know. When that happens I think we get caught up in our own thinking. We forget that everyone has a piece of the truth and that if we are compassionate, we will find ways to look for the best in each other and not play the blame game. It’s important to me that we all get out of our own heads sometimes.”

We probably all agree with those sentiments, but doesn’t that pose a dilemma for leaders? We know from The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership that to be an effective leader you need to be into your own head enough to clarify your vision of how things can be improved. You need to be sure enough about your vision of how things can be that you can clearly articulate it to any audience so they can share your aspirations. You need to be determined in your head and your heart. How do we do that and at the same time demonstrate compassion or get out of our own heads? How can we consistently show compassion as leaders, not just while we enable and encourage, but while we model the way, inspire a shared vision and challenge the process as well?

The key may be just getting comfortable getting out of our heads and through regular practice of compassionate thinking. In his book The Skilled Facilitator, Roger Schwarz defines compassion as “adopting a stance towards yourself and others that temporarily suspends judgment”. This definition can be useful in dealing with the paradox described above. In order to temporarily suspend judgment, we need to acknowledge our own thinking and well, “get out of our head”. Once we do this, we can be truly open to the perspectives, knowledge and wisdom of others. If we can suspend the story we so often have in our head, and hear what others think, we can co-create a story that has more data points, more detail, a deeper truth.

This doesn’t mean a leader never make decisions or judgments. It means that the leader waits until they’ve gathered all the information they can in the time permitted before making a decision or judgment. For example, can we suspend judgment when someone misses a deadline until we understand why? Can we keep from making up that little story in our head such as: “He’s got a reputation for being late; I should never have put him in this role. I’d better get someone else in there ASAP.” or “He hasn’t had his heart in the project from the beginning, I just need to sell him the vision again.” If we can temporarily suspend judgment, we might find out the team member doesn’t have the resources he needs, or he is dealing with family issues and needs a back up. We might arrive at a new truth, one that helps us lead more effectively. Now, let’s not be naive. We might also find out he is just late with the work, again. But by suspending judgment, the real issue has been surfaced and can be dealt with directly and effectively.

It seems as though compassion is at the very core of who we are as leaders because it’s at the core of how we handle relationships. It’s about getting outside ourselves by not thinking, “I lead, you follow.” but believing instead “Together we move forward.” It’s about shifting our thinking from “I understand and others who see it differently just don’t get it.” to “together we create a shared truth.” It’s about getting out of our hearts and heads long enough to understand the hearts and heads of those we are fortunate enough to lead.

Where are your opportunities to practice compassionate thinking? What stories can you suspend right now to get to a shared truth?