Compassion – A Leadership Competency

GROWING up in India, I went to a Zoroastrian School. It was a good school and as with most schools, it had all kinds of teachers. Some were nice and some not so nice. Some were passionate about their work and some regarded their work as just a job.

Of all the teachers, teacher D. N. Irani stands out in my memory – he was tall and lanky, with very little fat on his body. He wore his salt-and-pepper hair closely cropped and was always clean shaven. He was about the size and shape of Clint Eastwood, as Clint Eastwood looked in his 50s. In a light blue short-sleeved, bush shirt with khaki chinos and soft brown leather sandals he seemed to serenely glide from classroom to classroom.

In this school with its reputation of toughness, D.N. Irani walked tall and spoke slowly but always carried a big chunk of subtle influence. The boys would part in the hallways to let him pass, like Moses’ Red Sea, although nothing in his attitude or behavior demanded such from the boys.

Whenever other teachers or even the school head master was faced with a hooligan crowd in class they would always send for D.N. Irani to come and restore peace. And D.N. Irani never failed at quieting down a class simply by turning up quietly and planting himself in front of us like a mountain at peace. In the middle of all storms his mere presence would, somehow, make everyone see the bright and beautiful side life at school.

After seconds of gently staring us down, all he’d say is “You boys ought to be ashamed of yourselves. Go back to your studies; it is for your own good!” And, we’d all go back to work for weeks until the monkeys within us would get restless again.

For decades I used to wonder what it was about D.N Irani that had such impact on hooligans like us.

Today, as a leadership trainer and a coach, I have come to the conclusion that we responded the way we did to him because in the marrows of our bones we knew that he really and truly cared for us. We knew that he wanted us to grow, to become better and discover our own worthiness as human beings. We also knew that he felt and shared the growing pains in kids at school and that the shenanigans we played were just a cover up, a distraction to soothe our angst.

Beyond being visionaries, strategic thinkers, and excellent at execution leaders need to have deep compassion for people they work. Compassion — that ability to see, hear, sense, understand and want to help out others with their concerns, challenges and even pain is that energy binds and ignites every other leadership competency.

Research studies in 2012, by Olga Klimecki and Tania Singer of the Max Planck Institute, Germany concluded that compassion and compassion training increases pro-social behavior and strengthens resilience amongst leaders.

Three ways to enhance and strengthen compassion abilities within us are:

• Be mindful all the time: That is keep your senses of observation, hearing and sensing perked up towards others, towards the surrounding and in the moment. Obviously this requires that we lessen our own urges to talk, consistently being doing things and grab at life mindlessly.

• Recognize common humanity: That is when in the presence of those that we interact with, we bring forth onto our minds the fact that they are just like us in many ways and we too, maybe, in many ways be just like them. I believe it is referred to as “kapwa tao,” in the Philippines.

• Stretch out to be of service: Not that we can always help others out of their dilemma but efforts, mental or physical, do bring up some results for others and, more importantly, also nourish our own natural needs to care.

Sometimes people may think that being compassionate is being nice yet there is a fine difference. In being nice one does kind things that provide relief without really sensing what others may be going through. Like a child helping out a homeless person. While compassion comes wrapped in feeling how they feel and wanting and making mental and physical efforts to help others out of their situation for good.

Besides the studies by Dr. Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki on Empathy and Compassion, Dr. Thupten Jinpa of Stanford another researcher on compassion claims that “having compassion frees us from fearing… it turns our attention outwards, expanding our perspective, making our problems part of something bigger than us, that we are all in together.”

The amazing thing is that it is a learnable skill. The path to it is not long but the way is slightly deep. You cannot just walk there; you have to take a leap.


(This piece has been inspired by the book, the HeART of the Close and is a feature on Business World.)

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