The Invaluable Leadership Attribute of Compassion


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On August 9, 1945, the United States dropped its second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, killing 70,000 people and injuring hundreds of thousands more.  One of those severely injured in the blast was Dr. Takashi Nagai, a radiologist at the Nagasaki University hospital.  Thrown to the ground while filing x-rays in his office, which was located only 700 yards from the blast’s epicenter, Nagai suffered lacerations all over his body due to flying glass and debris. His wife, Midori, was not as fortunate.  Dr. Nagai found her carbonized remains among the debris of their now vaporized home.

Despite being grief-stricken and suffering from his own injuries, Nagai immediately chose not to succumb to anger and despair. Instead, he set out to volunteer to aid the seemingly endless stream of atomic-bomb victims.  Over the course of months, he worked tirelessly to help those who were suffering, despite his own tragic losses. He willingly exposed himself to dangerous radiation levels in order to help those who did not know how to help themselves following this mass catastrophe.

It’s up to us to take the first step in spreading it to every corner of our surroundings.

In the midst of unimaginable horror, his peaceful demeanor, compassionate attitude, and spirit of self-sacrifice became a source of strength for many who could not imagine how they would begin to rebuild their shattered lives.  When he finally passed away in 1951, over 20,000 people attended his funeral, including Emperor Hirohito.

In making the choice to act compassionately toward others, the “Saint of Nagasaki,” as he is now known, leaves us with a beautiful reminder of the power of compassion to help heal a hurting world. But it’s up to us to take the first step in spreading it to every corner of our surroundings.

What is Compassion?

The Dalai Lama is known for his many wise and insightful sayings.  One of his favorites, by his own admission, is “if you want others to be happy, practice compassion.” He then is quick to add that “If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” What this famous Buddhist leader is speaking to is the timeless truth that in life, we just can never give or get too much compassion.

Recent research confirms that leaders who exercise compassion produce loyal, dedicated, and passionate employees.

Admittedly, this is exactly the kind of advice you would expect from a widely-known religious leader like the Dalai Lama.  However, what few realize is the concept of compassion has extended well beyond the bounds of theological and philosophical tradition and is now influencing a host of scientific fields such as neurology, endocrinology and even immunology.  All of which are proving the profoundly positive physical and psychological benefits of regularly putting compassion into practice in our daily lives.

Recent research confirms that leaders who exercise compassion produce loyal, dedicated, and passionate employees. In fact, numerous studies have found that workplaces led by compassionate bosses enjoy increased rates of employee satisfaction, greater employee engagement, lower levels of overall stress and fewer reported sick days. In their report, “What Good is Compassion at Work?” researcher Jane Dutton and colleagues from the University of Michigan identify a “cascading effect,” whereby experiencing compassion at work generates positive emotion and, in turn, shapes employees’ long-term attitudes and behaviors.

Experiencing compassion at work generates positive emotion and, in turn, shapes employees’ long-term attitudes and behaviors.

So what can we do as leaders to put compassion into practice in our homes, workplaces, worship spaces and communities? Try these three for starters:

Seek others’ best interest. Believe everyone comes to work to do the very best job they can. Beyond what you see in the workplace, remember everyone is someone’s son, daughter, sister, brother, mom or dad. Like you, they have commitments, deadlines, goals, and pressures to perform. Take every opportunity to give others the benefit of the doubt and don’t be surprised when they begin returning the favor.

Understand what makes others tick. We live and operate in a “me-centric” society and then act surprised when others resist when we dictate or demand others do things our way. If you want to develop strong working relationships, honor others by taking some time to learn their background, dreams, objectives and obstacles. The better you understand what makes others tick, the more effective you will be in aligning their unique talents and strength to the goals and aspirations of the teams.

Serve others generously. The first rule of effective leadership is not to ask others to do what you yourself would not. So go first in helping others. Be generous in your willingness to do the little unexpected extras that communicate you are genuinely interested in serving their needs and not just having them satisfy yours. Praise them, share ideas with them, and do all you can to help them see their reflection in your leadership agenda. Incorporating “what makes them tick” by shaping the “how” and “what” of your plans and approaches will clearly communicate you have their best interests at heart.

Remember, you don’t have to be a modern day saint or a world famous religious leader to promote the value of compassion. As a leader, the more you understand what people need and what people’s anxieties and aspirations are, the more effective you will be at working with them. And the more compassionate you are, the less you will get worked up about little stuff and the more you will be able to focus on what really needs to get done to bring out the best in everyone—beginning with yourself.

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John is a widely recognized expert in culture, strategy & individual and organizational change. The senior-curator for GeneralLeadership.com, he is an accomplished unconventional leader and proven status quo buster who has successfully led several multi-billion dollar transformation efforts. His award-winning work has been featured in a wide variety of articles and journals, including the Harvard Business Review. In addition to serving our nation as an active duty General Officer in the United States Air Force, John enjoys helping people learn to walk differently in the world so they can become the best version of themselves possible. He is blessed to be married to the most patient person on the planet and together, they have two amazing sons. You are encouraged to learn more about John at his website, www.MediocreMe.com

  • David Hain

    A Buddhist friend of mine now lives here in Wales, but she was a small child in Nagasaki in 1945. She too has dedicated her life to making others happy, and she too is an inspiration. The Buddhist symbol of the lotus flower represents beauty growing from muddy water. To make sense of the bad things that happen in life we must seek the good, and one of the best ways to do that, as the Dalai Lama reminds us, is to practice compassion. One day we will all need it, and what we give, we tend to get…

    Thanks for a great reminder John!

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  • http://cashwithatrueconscience.com/rbblog Ryan Biddulph

    I love the Dalai Lama John and your wonderful post! Practice compassion to be happy and spread happiness around you.

    The other day I tried to save a dying, tiny puppy here in Pondicherry, India. The street dog situation is overwhelming at times but we try to help. Our little buddy passed on but rather than get bitter it caused me to open my heart and be more compassionate.

    We always have a chance to feel other’s pain and suffering and allow that energy to transmute, and raise our vibe.

    Thanks John, both for your inspiring post and service :)

    Ryan

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  • http://www.GeneralLeadership.com/ Matthew Fritz

    Excellent post, sir! Stretching our emotional intelligence a little, and finding compassion in situations where it can bring out the best in all who are involved can be key to harmony in any environment. Too often we are focused on the hard skills which, and overlook the basic needs of all players. “Serving Others Generously” resonates as a key leadership skill too often lost along the road to achieving personal success. Thanks for posting!

  • http://www.screwthesystemnow.com/ ScrewtheSystemJoe

    For some people it may seem odd that ‘compassion’ could be described as a leadership attribute but for me, it’s essential. Especially in the business world, where people may feel under pressure to be ruthless and only care about the bottom line, a lot of these so called ‘leaders’ would do well to heed the message of compassion.

  • http://www.savvycapitalist.blogspot.com TedCoine

    I really love this post, John. “Serve others generously,” indeed! As you so ably point out, when we look at the people on our team as whole humans with lives and passions and pressures outside of work, rather than as replaceable functionaries just with us to serve our purpose, those people respond by opening up and giving us more of themselves – and I have yet to find an organization of ANY type that can thrive by getting the required minimum from its workers.

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  • http://www.savvycapitalist.blogspot.com TedCoine

    It’s true, Joe – and that mindset of ruthlessness is actually less profitable, not more, which means compassion is actually a profit-builder. Boy, we modern leaders have a lot of deprogramming to do, don’t we?

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