Strategic Leadership. NeuroLeadership. Servant Leadership. Black Belt Leadership. Tribal Leadership. Principle-Centered Leadership. Strengths-Based Leadership.
Thousands of books have been written advocating different leadership philosophies, all making a case for how leaders – from the emerging to the seasoned — can better harness the human capital in their ranks for stronger profit and wealthier stakeholders.
If you’ve been a student of leadership for a while, you may have grown a little jaded and be quick to dismiss the recent trend toward Compassionate Leadership. My advice: Don’t be too hasty.
Compassionate Leadership has emerged from the growing field of mindfulness, originally pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn as a means of reducing stress. The fact that compassion and leadership are rarely positively correlated is perhaps the very reason it’s resonating so widely. As global competition and heightened uncertainty has driven organizations to outsource, flatten and cut back (often quite mindlessly and heartlessly – the two tend to go hand in hand), people have become increasingly hungry for a deeper sense of meaning in their work and a closer connection between what they do and how it serves a greater good.
And so the stage has been set for a new approach to leadership that transcends the traditional measures of organizational performance, to take care of the human condition at the heart level. Compassionate Leadership.
One of the leading organizations advocating and teaching Compassionate Leadership is the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. Approaching its fifth anniversary, SIYLI came out of an internal initiative within Google to teach mindfulness. It has since grown to be a leading player in taking mindfulness mainstream, introducing its evidence based teachings and “Engage” leadership program into organizations worldwide.
Marc Lesser, co-founder and former CEO of SIYLI, believes that a central aspect of cultivating mindfulness is in deepening both our compassion for ourselves and others (including those we may find hard to love!). Lesser breaks compassion down into three core domains
1. Empathy: Feeling as somebody else is feeling (however uncomfortable)
2. Cognitive: Seeking to understand what somebody else is thinking and why they came to hold their opinion (requiring mindful listening)
3. Motivation: Trying to take care of the concerns of others and reduce their suffering
Compassionate leadership begins with the intention to see as others see and feel as other feel. By practicing genuine empathy, leaders are better positioned to cultivate mindfulness in others, enabling them to both fulfill their own potential and to unleash it in those around them for a greater good. What is the ‘greater good’? In simplest terms, a world in which there is less suffering (including the self-induced variety) and more peace.
The holistic approach of corporate mindfulness programs explains the traction they’ve gained in a relatively short time. By helping employees tune in to what they are thinking and feeling (reducing a state of ‘mindlessness’ that pervades so many organizations) and teaching ways to engage the body to short-circuit our physiological response to fear and anger, they can better manage the emotions that often hijack rational behavior. In fact, research has proven that dedicated mindfulness practices don’t just change the neural circuitry in the brain over time, they expand an individual’s capacity to remain focused, diffuse conflict, build collaboration, perform under pressure and positively influence the behavior and wellbeing of others.
As ‘feel good’ as all of this sounds, it has significant bottom line impact. In 1989 (long before it became “hip”), Dr. Ellen Langer, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, wrote “Mindfulness.” Her continued research since first writing that book – and it’s subsequent re-publishing in 2014 – has found a strong link between mindfulness and leadership effectiveness.
“In more than 30 years of research, we’ve found that increasing mindfulness increases charisma and productivity, decreases burnout and accidents, and increases creativity, memory, attention, positive affect, health, and even longevity. When mindful we can take advantages of opportunities and avert the dangers that don’t yet exist. This is true for the leader and the led,” Langer wrote in her blog.
What’s not to love? Certainly many organizations — from American Express to Ford — are seeing a ROI from mindfulness programs worthy of continued investment. Yet the benefits of teaching people to live and lead from both head and heart far transcend bottom line measures. By cultivating a more human-centered and compassionate approach to leadership it fuels more courageous leader. The very sort needed in today’s increasingly anxious, uncertain and risk averse environment that drives people to make decisions based out of fear of what could go wrong and losing their power, rather than a commitment to making things more right and empowering others.
By engaging with each other as human beings, not just as human doings, Compassionate Leadership elevates the consciousness of leaders serve the highest good — not just lifting the lot of employees and shareholders, but of the communities in which they operate and the planet at large. It may seem an audacious aspiration, but I believe that by connecting with our deepest yearning for connection and contribution, as well as with each other at a deeper emotional, even spiritual level, the ripple effect of greater collective mindfulness can set in motion the conditions to create a better world for all. Surely that’s worth a few mindful moments to ponder.
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