Over the course of the last year, we have witnessed expressions of anger, fear, pitilessness and even hatred both predictably and unexpectedly. The British vote to leave the EU and US voters’ preference for a Trump presidency were prompted in part by feelings of anger towards leaders or ‘the system’ and fear about immigration and identity. The world has watched the war in Syria as thousands die and millions are misplaced with both horror and helplessness. What are our leaders and we to do?
At the core of all this, it seems to me, is a lack of compassionate leadership. Compassionate leadership means paying attention to those we lead, understanding the challenges they face (their frustrations, hurts, disappointments, as well as delights and successes), and empathising with them, feeling their feelings. Empathy provides the motivation for actively helping them and ensuring they flourish rather than languish.
The year was also a year where disconnection was seen as a solution. The United Kingdom leaving the EU and the Unites States putting up fences appealed to millions of voters. Leaders across Europe reacted to the plight of migrants from Syria and other war zones by erecting barriers. And the Trump transition team sought leaders who denied the scientific evidence on climate change.
Yet our reality is our interconnectedness and this has become clearer over the course of the past century than ever before. We are dependent on each other; on other species; on our planet; and our actions affect others, other species, and our planet. We face challenges on a huge scale (many of our making) including the need to reduce and reverse the effects of climate change; to change our species’ role in wiping out most other large mammals and thousands of other species; to prepare for and respond to the emergence of viruses that could lead to global pandemics; to support and integrate people forced to migrate because of war, famine, or rising sea levels; to foresee and ameliorate the effects of natural disasters; and to contain the potential threats posed by the commercial development of artificial superintelligence. Financial crises spread across the world, employment laws in one country affect workers in others, and industrial pollution affects the lives of all of us.
That implies a need for compassion from all towards all, including other species. Our every interaction every day shapes our world. To the extent that we are present with and pay attention to all those we interact with (‘listen to them with fascination’), understand their challenges, empathise with them, and take action to help them, we create a more compassionate world. We don’t have to feel helpless in the face of the fear, anger, and hatred that we see on our screens each day.
And when we behave constructively and compassionately recognising our connection with others, there is a ripple of beneficial action. Similarly, destructive or damaging behaviour affects not merely one interaction but begins a ripple of destruction. There is a powerful existential imperative that we act with compassion towards all we are connected with, if we are to ensure healthy evolution of the ecosystems and communities we are part of.
Our growing awareness of our interdependence and interconnectedness with each other, with other species and our fragile ecosystems, as well as the planet as a whole, demands we learn how to work collaboratively. In our interactions with our fellow human beings, fellow workers in organizations, those we lead and those we provide services for (e.g., in health care, telecommunications, transport, retail, counselling) the role of compassion is fundamental to sustaining interconnection. And there is much evidence of the beneficial effects of empathy, forgiveness, and caring upon wellbeing and resilience. Neglect, incivility, bullying, and harassment have quite opposite effects.
At the core of all this, it seems to me, is a lack of compassionate leadership.
To have the capacity and resilience to show compassion to others, we must first practise self-compassion: paying attention to ourselves by identifying the challenges, pain, and suffering we face in our lives; understanding the causes of our distress; empathising or caring for ourselves; and then taking intelligent action to help ourselves, in order to be who we can be; staying close to the core values that give our lives meaning; and enabling a deeper connection with all we interact with.
It also requires an understanding of what makes the most difference to our wellbeing. Most important is spending quality time with those we love, simple exercise (walking makes a big difference to health and well-being), paying attention to the here and now, spending time in nature or our gardens; learning new skills, and finding opportunities to help others.
Our unique, mysterious lives offer the opportunity to transcend hate, ugliness, and dishonesty that many leaders are modelling and instead to discover truth, beauty, and love through compassion and interconnection. A starting point in this process for all is awareness. That means compassionately learning to be aware in the present moment of ourselves, of others, of our existence and of the mysterious privilege of being. And fostering compassionate leadership and compassionate interactions with all.
Featured image credit: Fear by Katie Chase. CC0 public domain via Unsplash.