Compassionate leadership

Compassionate leadership. I heard this term for the first time from a top Internet CEO at one of the Imagine K12 talks, as part of the 4 months incubation program. I had briefly known and heard of this person due to the remarkable job he was doing at the company. I had no idea, however, of the depth of his personality.

I kid you not. At the end of the session all 20 entrepreneurs in the room wanted to go work for him instead of slogging away on their respective companies  Ok, at least half of us. So, what made him special? His vision of a more compassionate world, and specifically his practice of compassionate leadership.

So what is compassion?

Upon this CEO’s recommendation, I read The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama, which essentially correlates compassion and happiness. In the book, the Dalai Lama describes Compassion as being able to not just empathize with another being but also act upon that empathy to relieve the suffering of that being. This is a very powerful concept. We all empathize with someone or the other, but how many of us take it one level further and actually help the other person in their quest for happiness and less suffering? This is the scenario that CEO described:

Imagine you’re crossing the street. One the other end, you see another person being crushed by a boulder. Empathy is being able to feel what that other person is feeling – the crushing weight of the boulder on your chest, the air squeezing out of your lungs. Compassion, however, is feeling it to the level where you feel its your duty to help relieve that pain and you take it upon yourself to remove that boulder and save that person.

The book is not just a buddhist view of compassion. Dr. Howard Cutler, a psychiatrist specializing in the science of human happiness, contributes heavily to the book by contrasting the Dalai Lama’s philosophies with his western medicinal training and research. What stood out the most for me is how both the west and the east concurred on something fundamental. The more you practice compassion, the happier you get.

Compassion = Happiness?

The defining study called out in the book studies the effect of compassion on the mental state of happiness. Researchers performed this study on two groups, one comprising a wide sample of non practicing buddhists and one comprising just buddhist monks. They asked each group to meditate or just think positive, caring thoughts about someone other than themselves for a period of a few minutes. During the exercise and right after, they measured the brain activity in each individual in both groups. The result – the part of the brain that lights up when we’re happy lit up consistently and significantly for everyone. The buddhist monks’ levels were off the chart due to their ability and practice of compassionate meditation.

This study just blew my mind. I tried to relate this to my personal experiences. I was never able to rationalize the concept of prayer. This did the trick. Every time we pray, we are essentially being compassionate for our family, friends and ourselves, and every time we pray, our biology results in us being happier.

Compassionate leadership

The CEO also talked a lot about the practice of compassion in his professional life. How many times do we go out of our way to help a colleague and our direct reports? He talked about a former colleague of his who continuously undermined a direct report. Obviously that colleague was smarter and more experienced than the direct report. That’s why he had reached the leadership position. He confronted his colleague and talked about the disservice the colleague was doing to himself and the direct report. Interestingly, however, while having this discussion, he realized he was doing something similar to his own direct report.

This incident had a profound impact on the CEO. I am not sure if this is what led him down the path of compassionate leadership, but its definitely worth learning a lesson from. When in position of power (=leadership), dealing with your colleagues and direct reports has to come from a place of compassion. The buddhist word for this is Tsewa, which actually is very close to the hindi word Seva, which literally means Service (being a servant).

Looking at leadership from the lens of compassion really changed my outlook on the topic. So, here’s to the practice of compassion! :)