Compassion – a key feature of effective leadership

Effective leadership
Group of people on peak mountain climbing helping team work , travel trekking success business concept

By Manfred Gollent, certified business coach, 

Manfred Gollent

Attracting and engaging new talent is one of the most talked about issues in the world of business. Both, attracting new talent and engaging people into the vision and mission of an organization points to the organizational culture and, consequently, the leadership.

Compassion is a fundamental pillar for highly effective leadership; however, it may not always enjoy the level of importance it deserves.

What is compassion in practical terms?

I found an appealing explanation of the term compassion at the “Greater Good” website and they state it as the following:

“Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.”

Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless behavior often prompted by feelings of compassion, though one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion.

While cynics may dismiss compassion as touchy-feely or irrational, scientists have started to map the biological basis of compassion, suggesting its deep evolutionary purpose. This research has shown that when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in our wanting to approach and care for other people.”

Another interpretation of compassion I like comes from a distinguished Tibetan scholar Thupten Jinpa who has a long-standing collaboration with the Dalai Lama. Jinpa describes compassion as follows:

“Compassion is a mental state endowed with a sense of concern for the suffering of others and aspiration to see that suffering relieved.”

He points out compassion as having three elements:

  1. A cognitive component: “I understand you”
  2. An affective component: “I feel for you”
  3. A motivational component: “I want to help you”

How does this relate to leadership?

To begin with, a persuasive contribution of compassion in an organizational environment is that it creates high leadership impact. Highly effective leaders have managed a crucial transformation which Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, defined as shifting from “I to We.” Embracing this transition is a key element for leaders in becoming truly authentic.

Uncompromising authenticity is a basic requirement for leaders to truly engage people and enable them to unleash the power of their organizations.

Another important task of leadership is the development of leaders which requires from the leader to avoid the focus on “personal ego needs.”

The emphasis must not be on the leader but always on those being led.

Practicing compassion results into shifting the focus from self to others, hence compassion is about going from “I” to “We.” If we accept the fact that transitioning from “I” to “We” is possibly the most important process of becoming a transformational leader.

Jim Collins identified in his book Good to Great: “Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t” the fundamental connection between compassion and effective leadership very eloquently. The initial and possibly most important finding turned out to be the role of leadership. It requires a very special type of leader to transform a company from being good to being great and Collins named them “Level 5” leaders. Their attention is focused on the greater good of the company.

While Collins’s book persuasively validates the importance of Level 5 leaders, it does not offer insight into a structure of developing them. However, it can be deducted with certainty that compassion plays an essential role in being a Level 5 leader.

Considering the two distinguishing qualities of Level 5 leaders, ambition and personal humility, in the context of the three earlier indicated components of compassion, cognitive, affective and motivational, one can conclude that the cognitive and affective components of compassion representing understanding people and empathizing with them minimize self-centeredness, consequently establishing the conditions for humility. The motivational component of compassion of wanting to help people generates ambition for others or the greater good. Maybe, those three components of compassion can be effectively utilized in developing these two distinguishing qualities of Level 5 leadership.

It might be very rewarding to consider the important contribution of compassion towards leadership excellence – it is a very potent and powerful combination.


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