“All I ever wanted was to reach out and touch another human being not just with my hands but with my heart.” ― Tahereh Mafi, Shatter Me
This chapter talks about compassionate leadership which came out of my experiences overseas as a young missionary kid. Living in Saudi Arabia, going to boarding schools in India and Pakistan I saw a lot unusual and experienced many different situations. There is one specific experience that is forever in my mind and that is seeing lepers in India.
I hear a man walking on a street in India and crying for help. Can you give me some money or food so I can live? I realize the cry for help is coming from a distance by a disfigured man who has ragged bandages and dirty clothes on. I look and keep on walking; realizing the man crying for help is a leper. Lepers are a noticeable group of people who roam the streets seeking money and food to survive, yet people move away from these people because of this horrid disease.
Being a leaper automatically makes you an outcast in society. Lepers are ugly because of their disfigured and rotting bodies, where a good day for a leper is probably death. The real pain from this disease is being outcast by society, which is too much for a person to bear. To better understand what a leper feels, think about what would happen if you came home after finding out you had leprosy. You would never receive a human touch again, and your future would then lack meaning and purpose.
I started to visualize what Kurtz and Ketcham (1992) describe as a metaphor of living in a “bubble”. We create sterile bubbles in our life to avoid being touched by others. “Touching each other brings pain and even involves danger, the risk of being wounded by someone we love. But life is sterile, lonely, and not worth living in the kind of bubble that precludes touch. We see these sterile bubbles being created in our organizations.
As leaders break out of these bubbles we become transformed and begin to engage in compassionate leadership. Compassionate leadership is an act of love which gives followers meaning and purpose in their lives.
When leaders practice selflessness this seems distinct from the conventional view of leadership. The conventional view of leadership uses autocratic leadership to dictate behavior and outcomes does not work at all. On the other hand, leaders who are transformational encourage open, participative, and adaptive learning. Throughout leaders are seen putting an emphasis on relationships where they focus on the interests of others, rather than their own interests. This type of focus can only come through acts of love and tolerance or compassionate leadership.
Finding Meaning and Hope
Managerial books have failed when people are searching for meaning, and a reason to hope for the future. What these books have failed in doing, leaders step in times of confusion and collective pain and demonstrate acts of compassion which influence a response by others to be compassionate. The question is how did the leader reach a point in their leadership thinking of being more compassionate?
It is not in our own human nature to wake up one morning and say, “today I am going to make another person’s life better, or today I will intentionally make an effort to care for those who are hurting around me”. Our society is naturally driven by a desire to serve self and focus on what we can gain from our actions. This is called egoism. Egoism is a teleological theory of ethics that sets as its goal the benefit, pleasure, or greatest good of oneself. As we reflect on our own lives we usually do things that make us happy whether it’s to be benevolent or focused on being profitable. Every action is presumably morally motivated, conversely if we don’t get what we want we are dissatisfied.
To reach a point of being compassionate towards others, as leaders we need to put up with ourselves. This means, we must realize like others we have faults, failings, and flaws. Over the years I have found the nearer we draw to God, the more we should see ourselves being one with every sinner. When leaders realize this they begin to have more compassion for others. Leaders who draw nearer to God begin to make an honest assessment of self and understand their own weaknesses; therefore they can understand the weaknesses of others. In other words, when one recognizes the other’s weaknesses, it does not make them different but more like one’s self.
Compassion means to be together with someone’s pain. The prefix “com” means together with and the word “passion” has the same root as the word pain. Compassion is defined as having three components: 1) empathy or understanding the feelings of others, 2) caring for the other person, and 3) willingness to act in response to the person’s feelings. With compassionate leadership we see it as a long enduring leadership which makes a positive difference. A compassionate leader is one who seeks the greatest good for the individual, the group, and the mission. The compassionate leader feels the pain of individuals and seeks to help them reach their goals, aspirations, and dreams.
Compassion is often perceived as being “soft” or putting oneself in a vulnerable position. Leaders who act using compassion often times feel they are giving away power or giving up their individualism. Actually compassion is a form of altruism. Altruism is helping others selflessly just for the sake of helping, which involves personal sacrifice, although there is no personal gain.
Research over the past twenty years has shown that yet, in business the altruistic act is alien, probably because business is competitive and no one executive is close to the bottom of being altruistic, and members of organizations view these executives as being egoistic and selfcentered. As a definition altruistic love is a sense of wholeness, harmony, and well-being produced through care, concern, and appreciation for both self and others.
Values such as humility, compassion, kindness, caring and selflessness are action demonstrated by the leader. The leader demonstrates their humanity and unleashes a compassionate response which leads to increasing bonds among others and a high loyalty. As leaders demonstrate their compassion towards others there is an absence of any expectations, rewards or benefits from those they lead. As a result others begin to freely express themselves and discuss how they feel and find ways to move away from their suffering. When a leader leads with compassion they cannot help carry the aspirations and longings of others. This act of compassion comes about with agapao (love) and tolerance
Compassionate leadership is an outpouring of love by the leader. This type of love is called agapao which causes leaders view the person as a complete person who has wants, needs, and desires. Agapao means to love in a social and moral sense or a love of the will not of feelings. Compassion is not a passionate love, nor a parental love, but a love that brings about spiritual connectedness or a sense of community. Love is essential in leadership because once followers realize the leader cares they will listen.
Tolerance is learning how to live with others. Most of us tolerate or identify with those who share the same strengths as ours and most of the time we avoid those who do not. We usually form groups based on our ability to connect with others. In the case of someone who has imperfections we have difficulty connecting with them because we are comparing them to our strengths. Being tolerant of others, despite their weakness, is a form of compassion. I interviewed a leader who stated he does not have the human capacity to tolerate the angry and hostile person. He shared that he spends time in deep meditation and prayer seeking the power to love the unlovable. When people accept their imperfections there seems to be a special likeness or oneness with those who share the same weakness.
A Case for Compassion
Our world is filled with lepers. These are people we ignore because they are “different”, meaning they have different ideas, beliefs, and view the world differently than we do. Our natural tendency is to form groups and become part of a group that agrees with our own thinking. This is commonly known as identification or being a part of community. However, I contend we have to realize we are imperfect beings, and by denying our errors is the same as denying ourselves.
Example of Compassion
On the front cover of a local business journal the title stated; “The Top Ten Best Companies to Work For”. One of the featured companies was the Goodwill. Although the other nine companies displayed success with employees standing next to new cars, displaying new facilities and bragging about excessive profits, the Goodwill displayed a picture of Dan Rogers (president) surrounded by employees with big smiles. These employees were not ordinary people. At first glance these individuals appear to have physical and emotional handicaps. The reason these people are smiling is because they were given a second chance by the Goodwill and now are living productive lives with meaning and purpose. Looking at the picture and reading why they are happy it was apparent the president had demonstrated an act of compassion, which had influenced the rest of the organization. We have to think of ourselves as spiritual beings where we confront our helplessness, powerlessness, and woundness. As leaders compassion helps us first to see, then to understand, and eventually accept the imperfection that lies at the very core of our human being. Once we move through this process we begin to accept others as human beings and not lepers who are imperfect. After having an experience of compassion for others leaders become more tolerant begin to accept them rather than living in sterile bubbles.
In an interview with Dan Rogers he explained the Goodwill had a mythical perception of being a clothing store which made most of the money during Halloween. However, “that is not who we are”, stated Dan Rogers, “we are an organization with a Mission to provide people with disabilities and other barriers the opportunity to achieve their highest levels of personal and economic independence”.
The Goodwill views a person who joins as a “client” wants a second chance to lead a productive life but needs help. Dan told a story about Mary (a client) who came to the Goodwill for help. Mary’s hair was unkempt, her teeth were black, her clothes were dirty, and Mary would look down when she spoke. The first step in helping Mary was assessing her strengths and identifying what she does well. This led to matching Mary’s skills with a task where she could succeed. After a few weeks leadership noticed Mary was interacting with her co-workers and smiling. A month later Mary had a new haircut, her teeth were white, and she had on new clothes. Within a year Mary was assigned a managerial role where she was supervising others. With her success as a manager, Mary was able to secure a position outside of the Goodwill, and today Mary is a very productive person in society.
After listening to this story I realized Mary is a “leper” who was healed because of an act of compassion. Prior to being introduced to the Goodwill, many people had passed by Mary only seeing her imperfections comparing themselves to her. After my visit with the Goodwill an analysis was constructed of how the act of compassion by leadership had transformed clients, like Mary.
When first introduced to the Goodwill, leaders stated the client had a low belief system in which they felt they were incapable of performing at a high level. While matching the individual’s skills with the task the client’s self-efficacy increased influencing them to change their personal belief system. The transformation of the client’s thinking is when the individual changes the “I can’t, to I can”. Prior to this type of thinking the client’s selfexpectations had become self-fulfilling prophesies. The key to success at the Goodwill is their ability to increase the self-efficacy of the individual. Self-efficacy is a person’s beliefs about their capabilities to master a level of performance that influences other events that affect their lives. The work the Goodwill does explains how a client is influenced in three ways when leadership uses the act of compassion. The first way a leader influences a client is through the experience itself. Leaders at the Goodwill realized if the client manages through an adverse experience they begin to experience a higher sense of self-efficacy.
Therefore, leaders at the Goodwill are willing to give a client a second chance and say you are valuable and we want to invest our energies in you. Secondly, leadership influences the client through social modeling. While at the Goodwill the client begins to observe others who have similar abilities, seeing them succeed. Through social modeling the individual realizes there is hope and they can gain a higher purpose in their lives. Finally, the third way a leader influences the client is probably the most difficult and that is through social persuasion. Social persuasion comes from the leader who encourages the client they have the ability to perform at a higher level and will be successful.
After interviewing and observing how the Goodwill influences others this led to three significant implications which can be applied to the act of compassion. The first is the client gained a higher sense of competence over time and was able to work autonomously without praise from others, although encouragement did help the person with their ability to perform. Secondly, the client discovered a higher sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. After having this experience the client felt more connected to others and felt valued by the organization. This moved the person to make changes in their personal life such as Mary getting a haircut, going to the dentist, and wearing new clothes. Thirdly, the client felt they had a new sense of self-control after working at the Goodwill. Prior to entering the Goodwill the client felt their life was out of control and now with a new belief system and a feeling of purpose the client had more control of their life. Thus, the client became more independent and economically productive.
Lessons for Leaders
After gathering data and analyzing the Goodwill’s acts of compassionate leadership, there are three lessons leaders can learn; 1) leaders are moved by other’s emotions and needs, 2) leaders are selfless and become altruistic, and 3) leaders are a shining light to others.
Leaders are Moved
The expression “leaders are moved” means leaders are moved by the followers hurt and pain because the leader has also experienced the same pain and sufferings. As a result the leader comes alongside others and begins to help them reach their personal dreams and aspirations. A leader being moved is the cornerstone to a leader acting out of compassion, although leaders are also movers. By being a mover the leader influences the individual to perform at a higher level where they gain a higher sense of self-worth and confidence.
When leaders are emotionally moved by their followers the leader is saying is I want to help, not I have to help. This attitude is illustrated in the gospel of Matthew 8: 2-3, when a leper approaches Jesus and says; “Lord, if you want to, you can make me well again”. Jesus touched the leper and said I want to”. Compassionate leaders have no problem saying I want to and have an internal desire to reach out and touch others, healing the person through acceptance. Leaders who are moved can be described as ones who defend the weak and comfort the needy.
Leaders are Selfless and Altruistic
This concept is simple, but difficult to put into action. Being selfless, is not selfish which most people practice, it means putting other people needs ahead of yours. The actions you take and the decisions you make as a leader is to put your agenda aside and focus on the person.
Leaders are a Shining Light to Others
In Matthew 5 the author states, “”You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. As leaders our purpose is to be shining lights to others, giving people hope and direction.