In their article: “Compassion as a Generative Force,” Jane E. Dutton and Kristina Workman observe that “when compassion is lacking, outcomes are flawed.” That may explain why the president’s actions or decisions on such important issues as healthcare, climate change, Charlottesville or DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) have created such strong reactions on all ends of the political spectrum. Many have criticized Trump’s actions on these issues because of the significant harm they may cause the American people and the deepening divisions that may result in the country.
Imagine for a moment the president one day declares: “I would like to unite the country on issues important to all Americans.” In this imagined scenario, if Trump were to ask, “What should I do differently?” my suggestion would be for Trump (or any leader) to examine the importance of emotions in leadership, and specifically the role of compassion as the basis for an alternative approach to decision making.
There are seven emotional competencies that I consider most critical for effective leadership: empathy, compassion, interest, optimism, inspiration, trust and positivity. The presence or absence of any of these emotions greatly influences a person in his or her possibilities for action. Being aware and having the ability to shift one’s emotional state allows a leader to make better decisions.
Among those seven emotional states, empathy and compassion are at the very foundation where a leader who would like to develop his or her emotional competence may reap the greatest benefits. (See the Boomerang Leadership Framework.)
According to Daniel Goleman, empathy has three attributes which are essential for effective leadership:
- Understanding another person’s perspective,
- Feeling what someone else feels, and
- Sensing what another person needs.
While empathy allows a leader to care about the needs of others, it is compassion that inspires a leader to help and serve people in need.
Leading with compassion can be transformational, as can be seen in the case of Nelson Mandela. During his 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela learned that by treating his white guards as humans rather than enemies, gradually they would change their behavior by treating him as human as well. After his release, Mandela took this lesson to heart by acting with compassion towards all South Africans. His transformation from a revolutionary leader who once thought that violence would be necessary to end apartheid to a compassionate leader allowed him to lead his country through a peaceful transition to a post-apartheid South Africa.
The deep divisions in the United States make it similarly challenging for any president to lead positive reforms. To reconcile the country the president should follow Mandela’s example of leading with compassion.
For a leader to know if he acts with compassion when making an important decision, Daniel Goleman (inspired by the Dalai Lama) suggests that the leader should start by simply asking, “who would benefit from my decision?”:
- Does the decision benefit only me or a group?
- Does the decision benefit only my group or everyone?
- Does the decision benefit people only for the near-term or for long into the future?
Applying question number one of Goleman’s compassion test to the president’s actions on the Affordable Care Act, the Paris Climate Accord, Charlottesville and DACA, critics might say that all four decisions primarily benefited the president, because it has helped him, at least temporarily, to secure his base.
Applying question number two, critics might also say that only specific groups benefit from some of these decisions. For example, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act specifically benefits the wealthy, while hurting people with low income. Similarly, withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord benefits the oil and coal industry and only for the very short-term.
Applying question number three to Trump’s decision on the Paris Climate Accord exposes the fact that exiting the Accord would jeopardize future generations. Likewise, Trump’s decision on DACA jeopardizes the future of the “Dreamers”.
In summary, all four cases fail Daniel Goleman’s compassion test. That’s why these decisions caused such strong opposition from a large majority of Americans, and led to widespread frustration and scathing critiques from both business and political leaders around the globe.
Alternatively, a more compassionate approach would lead the president to consider the needs of all the people affected by his decisions. Understanding and considering the needs of all stakeholders is a critical step to develop solutions. This approach allows the president to overcome resistance and unite the key stakeholders he needs in order to support critical reforms on such issues as immigration, health care, infrastructure and the tax code. Ultimately, taking such a compassionate approach would greatly benefit both the American people and Trump’s presidency, and help to reconcile the country.
I am often asked if empathy and compassion can be learned. This is a valid question since the research of social psychologist Dacher Keltner shows that when leaders have increased personal power, their ability to empathize is often reduced. However, when leaders are open to learning in this area, as we have seen in the example of Mandela, their capacity for empathy and compassion can increase. This is why we at Blue Earth put a strong emphasis on helping leaders develop empathy and compassion as a key to creating transformational change and innovation.
To learn how to lead “Innovation and Transformational Change” by developing empathy and compassion, you may contact the author directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other articles from the author on the importance of empathy in leadership include: