Transforming Systems: Exploring the place of compassion in the exercise of leadership
A couple of years ago I received information about a Group Relations Conference in India and was struck by the following quote from the conference brochure:
‘As our world grows more chaotic and unpredictable, we tend to turn more and more to those in leadership to control chaos and make us feel safe. Leaders, in their bid to be popular, often lose sight of the fact that their primary task is to enhance individual, group, and systemic capacity to ‘see’ the realities that people face and enact.
It is only through one’s ability to develop a ‘relationship with uncertainty and the unknown’, the competence to more ‘deeply attend to reality’, and the conviction about the interconnectedness of all things, that one can open space also for the possibilities of transformation. This requires not only a deep sense of compassion but also an unflinching faith in the basic capacities of people. These may seem like soft or weak stances in a world that celebrates aggressive and even arrogant leadership, but on deeper reflection we realise that these stances are what make us deeply love and admire those leaders who demonstrate them in their way of being.’
– Rosemary Viswanath & Gouranga Chattopadhyay
I was quite taken, not only by the title of the conference (for obvious reasons) but also with the ideas expressed, particularly the idea that part of a leader’s task is to support others to deeply attend to reality with compassion, no matter how challenging or painful that may be. My research data would suggest that deep attention to reality often mobilizes a flurry of mixed emotions for leaders – ranging from fear to fearlessness, from open heartedness to closed mindedness (and everything in between).
Why? Because as we can all attest to, attending to reality can be complex. Deeply attending to reality requires our presence. Staying with reality, requires our mindfulness and the capacity to sit in the fire and lean into discomfort with others. Cultivating these capacities requires the leader to access compassion for themselves, coupled with courage to face their own feelings of inadequacy and fear in the face of the unknown. Compassion and courage are also needed as leaders disentangle themselves from others’ insistence that they must immediately have the answers, restore the balance or save the day. Heifetz and Linksy remind us through their work on adaptive leadership, that when faced with complexity and upheaval, it can be particularly tempting for leaders to take action too quickly to restore equilibrium. In doing so, the real leadership task may be missed.