I think that most of us have a vision in our minds of the types of qualities effective leaders should exhibit, and I would venture that compassion may be one of those qualities. I know it’s high on my list of expectations in the person that I would take pride in saying I’d follow into any situation. General Douglas MacArthur, someone in a leadership role that required the utmost steel said, “A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the quality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.” Compassion, to me, is a sign not of weakness, but of great strength and a clear sense of the “why”. So then, why is it that there are so many leaders that exhibit such a lack of this trait? Lack of compassion is so stunning and baffling to me personally, that I’ve never been able to understand it, particularly in those that have made it into positions of power, where leading and affecting the lives and decisions of so many would necessitate the ability to be effectively empathetic and proactively compassionate. I think that the general population feels this way as well. Think of all of the times that you heard others, when referring to the Enron crisis, say, “How could they do this to so many people? How could they, in positions of power and trust, destroy others’ futures by gutting their retirements?” It’s got to be more than just a lust for power.
I read an article today in the Harvard Business Review , which spoke volumes to me today (you’ll also see a link to it on my Twitter feed on my homepage). While Hubris Syndrome is mentioned in this article, the kinds of things that I’ve been think a lot about are not in such a severe category, but no less concerning. A quote from the article reads, "It’s not that power makes people want to be less empathetic; it’s that taking on greater responsibilities and pressure can rewire our brains and, through no fault of our own, force us to stop caring about other people as much as we used to.”
Wow. This is such a powerful statement. It resonated with me in so many ways. Throughout my working years, I’ve witnessed or heard from others in different settings and across job types about multiple incidences of a clear lack of compassion: bosses belittling their employees on whom they rely, sarcasm and cutting words thrown around as “joking,” lack of showing care for others’ personal weights or burdens, self-centered attitudes, lack of concern for workplace climate. Now, perhaps, there’s a reason-and some hope. The article also states, “.. it does not have to be this way. Such rewiring can be avoided — and it can also be reversed.”
It is well worth the time to read the article thoroughly. I know I’m not the only one who has experienced this concern and a direct impact from those that lack compassion. In fact, the article also states these statistics, “Of the over 1,000 leaders we surveyed, 91% said compassion is very important for leadership, and 80% would like to enhance their compassion but do not know how. Compassion is clearly a hugely overlooked skill in leadership training.” The article states several ways of avoiding and reversing lack of compassion, such as:
1) Apply compassion to every interaction we have, by asking, “How can I be of benefit to this person?”
2) Make a daily habit of actively looking for opportunities to show compassion for someone in need of it.
3) Practice a compassion meditation (directions in the article).
I would add to this by saying that anyone in any sort of leadership position needs to be mindful of the possibility of this re-wiring happening to them, or the fact that it may be actively exhibiting itself. This takes willingness and the emotional intelligence to reflect daily, and ask the question in the first point above. And, referring to the second, I would argue that there is ALWAYS someone in need of compassion, however small the gesture may seem to the person who offers it. This relationship cultivation through care is the opposite of weakness. It takes strong leaders to be vulnerable enough to authentically practice compassion. The benefits are immeasurable, not only to the recipients of the kindness, but also to the leaders themselves.