Compassion as a key to ethical, professional leadership

  • Published
  • By Col. Michael Chyrek
  • 460th Medical Group Commander
Compassion is defined as a profound human emotion prompted by the pain of others. More vigorous than empathy, the feeling commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another's suffering. It is often, though not inevitably, the key component in what manifests in our social context as altruism. In ethical terms, the various expressions passed down through the ages of theĀ "Golden Rule" embody, by implication, the principle of compassion: Do unto others as you would have done to you. Compassion is ranked as a great virtue among numerous philosophies and by all major religious traditions.

Leadership, like compassion, is about getting involved with people and walking in their shoes. "Compassion" is derived from the Latin root words "cum," "with" and "passio" meaning "to suffer," or literally "to suffer with." It is not about taking away or relieving one's suffering but rather meeting them in their place of suffering and being a companion with them, perhaps in hopes of lightening the load and leading them through it. However, if suffering is not alleviated then it does not mean one is any less compassionate.

Sympathy does not equal compassion; all compassion may be sympathetic, but not all sympathy is compassionate. To illustrate, sympathy is more about feeling sorry for another person from a distance; whereas, compassion requires "walking" with the other person and feeling with them through their suffering.

There are many characteristics of Leadership -- having vision, taking ultimate responsibility, using sound judgment, knowing when to trust your gut, always being vigilant, paying attention to details, seeking expertise, genuinely caring for team-mates, exhibiting perpetual optimism and being able to simplify complex issues, just to name a few.

Leadership is a subject that is difficult to get one's arms around; it is a topic that is somewhat nebulous, seemingly hard to teach, yet is truly a learned skill that is critical for an organization to succeed. Successful leaders continuously help others to grow and they never stop learning themselves. To me, successful leadership is the fine art of integrating numerous individual strengths among an organization, all in a collective effort to enable people and the organization to achieve more than they would on their own. It is the art of culling individual talents and channeling them towards a common goal.

Pick up any magazine or newspaper today and you'll find multiple examples of poor leadership and unethical behavior -- no segment of our society has gone unscathed. Now more than ever our country is concerned with the ethical aspects of leadership. I believe the root of most unethical and unprofessional leadership behavior stems from greed and a lack of compassion which is surprisingly -- or not -- prevalent in the world today. Psychologist and best-selling author, Daniel Goleman, in his book "Emotional Intelligence," cites a study of business executives who claim that their duties required them to "think with their heads but not with their hearts." These leaders sincerely believed that displaying compassion would automatically place them at odds with organizational goals. Their attitude seemed to suggest "only look at the numbers-not the people." In the medical world we are all about compassion, courtesy, respect and sensitivity yet we can't ignore the numbers of how many patients were seen, how many prescriptions filled, how many no-shows, etc. Metrics are necessary but professional leaders are able to balance their efforts while focusing on their people.

In the military, we all subscribe to a "mission first--people second" mentality which is somewhat of a conundrum in that we can't accomplish the mission without our people; hence, the saying "take care of your people and they will take care of the mission." Another attempt to put it into perspective is using the mantra "mission first--people always." Therefore, compassionate, professional leaders use both their head and their hearts to lead.

Ethical abuses in the private and public sector have led companies, universities and other organizations to invest time and money exploring the issue of ethical leadership. These institutions have discovered that one of the best ways to encourage ethical behavior is wonderfully simple: lead by example. People may listen to what you say but they will respond to how you act. Your ethical behavior will set the tone for those who follow you much more often than any other attempt to influence behavior.

The specific tactics that leaders choose to employ are an important element of ethical and compassionate leadership outcomes. Bullying, or intimidating tactics, which rely on fear to motivate eventually backfire. There is a fine line between firmness and harshness, between strong leadership and bullying, between discipline and leniency. It can be difficult to define, but a leader must know where that line lies as unethical leadership adversely affects us all. From the youngest Airmen to our most senior members, we are all leaders; we're just at different stages of development and implementation. When leaders use compassion and are motivated by taking care of their people while concurrently keeping the organizational goals clearly in focus, positive results are bound to occur. As leaders we have a choice -- we choose our tactics and guiding principles every time we make a decision -- and keep compassion in the mix.

The Dalai Lama said, "If you want others to be happy, then practice compassion. If you want to be happy, then practice compassion."

I'd add: if you want your team to succeed, then practice compassion and take care of your people. Then, they will ensure you and, consequently, your mission succeeds.