Obviously, we know that emotions can break us down and cause us to be ineffective. We see this with fear and public speaking – and in arguments with our loved ones. Emotions can also provide us with important information – if we are mindful.
We hear a lot about mindfulness these days. We hear about mindful eating, mindful home decor, even mindful pet interaction. Generally, there is an attempt to distance mindfulness from those Buddhist ideas which, in many cases, were at their origin, and this can water down its usefulness. In the era of Covid, compassionate leadership is called for.
This compassion (acting for/with) goes beyond empathy (feeling for) and sympathy (feeling with).
The Buddhist concept of karuna comes close, I think, to the kind of compassion that is called for from CEOs in the Covid era. It is sometimes translated as loving-kindness. The feeling is combined with the doing. The loving, in this case, is Caritas (charity), not eros (romance).
This kindness can take many forms – traditionally: right view, right thought, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, and right mind.
Does this sound like a recipe for burnout?
There was a student who imitated his teacher in all things. His teacher, when asked about wisdom, would silently raise a finger, so the student began to do the same. The teacher heard about it, asked his student about wisdom, and – when the student raised a finger – cut it off.
The student got wisdom then! The student lost attachment to his finger. The cutting -past imitation, straight to the source- was compassion. Wise leader avoids burnout because they are non-attached. They can endure the pain of others just as they endure their own pain – by practicing non-attachment.
Would you trade a finger for wisdom?
Non-attachment is also useful in ever-changing times.
Clinging to life pre-Covid, we cannot move on. When faced with a disturbance, try to manifest R.A.I.N:
- Recognize what is happening – at least on the surface level
- Accept it as completely as you can
- Investigate it fully and deeply – as a Martian confronted with a tea set
- Non-attach – now you can react skillfully
Let us contrast this current search for compassionate leadership with the traditional models of leadership seen mainly through the lens of power. French and Raven’s landmark model identified five main sources of power:
Reward and Coercion
These are the typical parental controls, the carrot, and the stick. Both require constant surveillance in order to promote “natural consequences”. Rewards can be less effective than we think when they take the form of a regular paycheck that most of us just regard as our due – and often less than we’re worth.
Americans in particular hate coercion. We have a strong sense of our individual freedoms. We distrust sacrifice for the good of the group.
This leadership level has to do with the title. I do not mean aristocratic title. (However, an Oxbridge accent might get you further than an Ivy League degree.) I mean job title. It works a lot as military rank does. This person holds power because they are VP of something. They have “executive” as part of their title. But there is a sense in which the title was not earned.
They command solely based on their title. Think of the teenage college-boy captain in command of a squad of soldiers utterly dependent on the grizzled old veteran lieutenant he outranks.
Experts are recognized as experts, not by virtue of some newly minted certifying body among a dozen others. They must prove their expertise regularly. They belong to a very small, elite group. If they were a research report, they would be Tier I peer-reviewed. Having a blog with a hundred followers is not enough.
Some thinkers add a sixth power category, which is Informational. This leader controls the flow of information and, in today’s world, can wield tremendous power. Whole companies can be shut down by malware and rely utterly on lowly IT techs for continued functioning.
This leadership level used to be called charismatic. Today we might call them influencers. The leader commands because they are liked, valued, and respected on a personal level. There is a feeling that there is reciprocity as well. We feel that the referent leader likes, values, and respects us. These levels of leadership can combine, of course.
Building Loyalty Through Leadership is a great example of a combination of expertise with referent power. Referent power has been the hardest one to define – and I think that it is so because it is both rare and undervalued. Possibly now it can come into its own in the guise of compassionate leadership.
There is one last level of mindful leadership that I think must be added in order for us to create true compassionate leadership in and beyond the Corona era. There is a word that is often paired with karuna. Often, one speaks of metta karuna.
We have seen that karuna can mean loving kindness in the sense of charity. It is an action that is motivated by a love called Caritas.
In effect, karuna can work in a negative sense of taking away something, the removal of harm. Metta is the desire to cause well-being and particular happiness. It is positive and productive. The two together are complementary. Complete compassionate leadership will begin by removing harm and then move on to cultivate health and contentment.
The next big challenge is how to do all this remotely.