Can We Have Compassionate Leaders In A Dog-Eat-Dog World?


As published by the Forbes Human Resources Council

One of my favourite people to follow on Twitter has been The Dalai Lama. His eloquent writings on the importance of global leadership have been a real inspiration to me. The Dalai Lama encourages leaders to be mindful, selfless and compassionate. But is it possible to be so high-minded in a dog-eat-dog world? I think so.

For our book The Loneliness of Leadership, Jim Houran and I examined the importance of leaders driving happiness and fulfilment in their organizations. We found that leaders who focus on these issues outperform their peers by a wide margin. Why is that? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Flow, said it best: “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

Our research also uncovered a distinction between happiness and satisfaction. We found that most high performers are rarely satisfied, but most often happy. Conversely, people who had high degrees of personal satisfaction were often unfulfilled at work. When leaders understand this paradox, they can mentor their teams appropriately. It necessitates team play, cooperation and a system for safe disagreement. It also means hard, meaningful work.

Likewise, I’ve found that modern leadership requires a deft touch rather than a sledgehammer — a leadership style that is more empathetic and people-centric. The command-and-control model of leadership might work well in the military, but not in the world of today’s millennial and Gen Z workforce. It is too easy for employees to leave an organization that does not mentor and nurture its young people. What I’ve observed is that some of the very best leaders have a penchant for creating a happy workplace.

In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, the Dalai Lama touched on three important themes that I find very apropos here:

  • Mindfulness: The Dalai Lama recommends cultivating peace of mind. To me, that suggests the importance of “getting comfortable with yourself.” One must have self-awareness before they can effectively lead others. The best leaders I observed were always analysing their strengths and weaknesses and surrounding themselves with people who filled the gaps in their own capabilities. The fact is that weak leaders surround themselves with other weak performers, but strong leaders do the opposite. In the end, a leader must create an environment of trust and a willingness to listen. This can only be done when a process of brainstorming and execution are team-based and not dictated. No one has all the answers. Leaders may have the vision, but they need others to get tangible results.
  • Selflessness: Most people would agree with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which starts with self-preservation but ends with self-actualization. To be truly fulfilled, people need to help others. Merely asking for help and providing it to others is something that gives people meaning in their lives. Cooperation and how leaders engage their organizations and put trust in their teams are also deciding factors in their overall success.
  • Compassion: Finally, The Dalai Lama references warm-heartedness as the ultimate source of a happy life. In a business context, that focuses on corporate citizenship, which includes the more common idea of corporate social responsibility. Making a profit is very important in any economic endeavour, but that should be coupled with intelligence and positive social and environmental impact. Marginalizing the importance of “doing right” in the quest for profit is dangerous.

But business can be a great peacemaker. By trading with other people, one usually finds a common bond and a peaceful existence. Going to war with your business partners is rarely the right answer to solving problems. Interestingly, protectionism has been making a comeback lately (think Brexit and U.S. tariffs). Unfortunately, these strategies typically fail to deliver the desired result. When relationships are viewed as a zero-sum game (I win, you lose), compromise is rarely found. Simply put, walling off your country, state, town or company will be your demise, not your protector.

In the end, leadership is as much art as it is science. Constant practice is necessary to keep your leadership capabilities sharp and relevant. Success in leadership today requires thoughtfulness, caring and compassion. Poor leaders may win occasionally, but never in the end. Take a tip from The Dalai Lama, and become the best leader you can possibly be.