As a child, how often were you asked the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Adults probably encouraged your aspirations when you replied with the usual suspects: doctor, artist, astronaut, professional athlete. As a teenager heading off to college, I remember feeling the pangs of uncertainty while trying to answer this question, yet I also had a sense of urgency to resolve it. I sought advice from my greatest mentor and teacher, a successful psychologist to whom I credit much of my development as a young woman. When I asked him if his career was what he had always wanted to do, he smiled and softly suggested that perhaps I was trying to answer the wrong question.
Instead of asking what I wanted to be, he asked me how I hoped to serve the world. His question offered a critical re-orientation of focus. I shifted from fantasizing about roles that would bring me the most success and fulfillment to considering ways that I could be of service to others. My mentor told me that the first line of the Prayer of St. Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace” sits on his desk, and it’s his way of reminding himself of his purpose.
Now, I don’t consider myself religious but I appreciate the wisdom of traditions, and I know truth when I see it. When I heard this simple request, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” I could feel it in my bones—the call to serve in order to alleviate suffering in the world. In essence, this captures the two-part definition of compassion, which is (1) the recognition of another’s suffering and (2) the will to act in order to relieve it. It has been ten years since that conversation; compassion continues to fuel and guide my personal and professional endeavors, and I know that this isn’t unique to me.
In your own leadership experiences my guess is that you, too, have been motivated by the yearning to be a part of a purpose greater than yourself, to create better social realities, to shape a world that you are proud to pass on to future generations. Even at the micro-level of everyday interactions, I believe that we all have the best intentions to be attentive and kind.
But I know how it goes. You have a thousand emails piling up. Your to-do list is growing by the minute. You feel frustrated and overwhelmed with the others’ demands, lack of cooperation—you name it. And slowly, your heart begins to harden with indifference. You may find yourself being less mindful in social interactions, or dismissing the social or environmental consequences of business decisions as long as your bottom line is met. However, as a leader you don’t always have the option to step away from your role in order to re-establish equanimity, so instead, most of us just tend to disconnect so that we can still ‘get the job done.’ We risk turning into task-oriented robots, or worse, losing sight of a once compassion-driven purpose.
Arguably for many leaders, compassion fuels our purpose. Connecting to compassion, or perhaps reviving it, and directing it towards oneself and towards others can bring life back into leadership. As Pema Chodron, Buddhist master, reminds us, “If we want to know peace, we must take responsibility for knowing where our own hearts have hardened or closed.”
Mindfulness is key to this endeavor because it teaches us to become aware. Here are two ways that mindfulness can cultivate deeper compassion towards yourself and towards others:
Self: Many of us are our own worst critic, which is the opposite of Mindful Self-Compassion. It often takes practice to retrain yourself with kinder self-talk, but the first step is just noticing and attending to your thoughts and feelings with a gentle and loving curiosity. This is the ‘mindful’ piece.
The ‘compassion’ part involves responding to your experience the way that a close friend might if they could experience your inner world. This may sound simple, but studies show that it is a practice that increases your ability to withstand stress and it also promotes resilience, which are both critical capabilities in leadership.
Others: In order to relieve suffering in the world, you must notice that another is suffering first. This awareness is inherent in the practice of mindfulness. Once you become aware, resist the urge to fix the problem and conjure up a solution immediately. Instead, listen deeply.
If these skills don’t come naturally to you, don’t worry. I put quotes and reminders up on my desk, in my phone, on my calendar - wherever I can - in order to re-orient me back to this intention of being compassionate.
Ultimately, your professional role or your job title is much less important than the reason that you choose to embody it. Our increasingly complex society is calling for more conscious and compassionate leadership, and mindful practices are critical in achieving this purpose. When we come to acknowledge our connectedness and lead from that place, compassion will be made manifest.
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