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Compassionate Leadership: When The Dalai Lama And Brain Scientists Agree on Something, You Want To Listen

By October 11, 2016February 2nd, 2021Leadership, Uncategorized

When I was a little girl, I’ll never forget seeing a stray dog. It was running along the street in a panic, approaching a freeway onramp. It was disoriented and fearful, panicking and not knowing what to do. For me, as a small child, this was traumatic to see. I knew what would happen if that dog got up the freeway ramp; I think we can all conclude he wouldn’t have had much of a chance.


I cried through the closed window of our car, tapping the glass with the hope that it could save him.  “Doggy! Doggy! The doggy needs help!” My mom was focused on driving and didn’t hear me. Meanwhile I was distraught, imagining the impending doom of someone’s loyal companion.

I envisioned a little girl much like myself crying herself to sleep, not knowing where her dog was.

Then suddenly, a car pulled over. A good Samaritan got out, approached the frightened dog, and managed to rescue it from the side of the road. At that moment, my sadness flipped to elated joy. Every fiber of my being was happy, and for a couple reasons. First of all, Doggy was going to be OK. And second of all, I felt immense gratitude for the kindness of the rescuers. I witnessed compassion, although I didn’t know that word when I was a young girl.

Witnessing compassion has an emotional, spiritual, and physiological effect on people.  And this experience shaped my beliefs about the world,  teaching me that we are inherently good and that doing good is part of our DNA.

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What Is Compassion?


Compassion is defined as a concern for the misfortune of others and wanting to do something about it. It’s often confused with empathy, which is having the understanding of another’s feelings or experience. The main difference is that compassion sparks action.


A beautiful example of compassion in action (and technically, in a workplace) was when professional tennis player Rafael Nadal stopped a tennis match he was in because he heard a girl crying for her mother. Something inside of him was moved to take that single action. He could have ignored it, as I’m sure many people who’ve heard children in distress have blocked it from their minds. But he stopped… in the middle of a game… and made it possible for them to find each other from across the courts and to each other.



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When The Dalai Lama and Brain Scientists Agree on Something…


Religious and spiritual leaders have been teaching for thousands of years that compassion is a virtue. Compassion rests as a foundational tenet of Buddhism.  The Dalai Lama says, “If you want to be happy, practice compassion. If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.” Biblical quotes and sacred texts from mystics and spiritual leaders speak of the gift that is practicing compassion.


And now Western science has chimed in on the topic.

Brain imaging studies by the National Institutes for Health show that the pleasure centers of the brain – the same ones that light up from sex, money, and chocolate- are activated by compassion.  In other words, we feel PLEASURE when we observe someone doing for another. Children, such as myself when I saw the stray dog being rescued, respond when they see good being done for others. It creates an emotional and physiological impact.

Our brains are wired to respond positively to compassion. Researchers say it’s part of our evolutionary survival strategy: when our primordial ancestors showed compassion, it helped the species survive.

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Compassionate Leadership: From “Me” to “We”



Compassion helps us in more ways than just a warm, fuzzy feeling… it helps us create healthier, happier, more productive workplaces.

Approaching leadership from a compassionate standpoint is about moving your focus from “Me” to “We”.  The “I’m only in it for myself” mindset isn’t what’s needed to create more peaceful, productive workplaces. The shift towards a more compassionate workplace are far reaching: on an emotional level it keeps people happy, and on a financial level it saves money.



  • In a 2012 study by BMC Public Health, it shows employee stress levels decrease when they feel more bonded. We all know what happens to communication, productivity, and interpersonal relationships when stress is high. Imagine the reverse of that.


  • A compassionate leader encourages stronger relationships and communication: people are encouraged to develop friendships. These deeper levels of understanding help with attitude, focus, and commitment.


  • Think of hostile environments you’ve been in. Studies show that compassionate leadership promotes higher  employee retention. When people are feeling appreciated and part of something bigger than the job, it promotes a positive work environment and company culture.


  • A study published by the Academy of Management review shows that compassion can actually lower blood pressure and decrease heart rate.  The decrease of stress and increase of feeling part of something helps the body be more resilient, thus decreasing sick days.


  • Compassion replicates itself: A study published by the National Academy of Sciences shows how cooperative behavior “cascades” to others around. It’s actually contagious. When you raise the compassion bar, others follow suit. It becomes the new normal. And here’s an important sidenote: it does NOT open the door to being taken advantage of. The fears of being compassionate have been put to rest.


  • An Australian School of Business leadership study polled 5,600 participants from 77 different organizations. Those leaders identified as compassionate consistently showed productivity increases in employees, higher morale, and yes… higher profitability.


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Compassionate Leadership: Just Remember These 3 Things


Being a compassionate leader really hinges on 3 main principles. As long as you stay focused on these, it will be much easier for you to make the inner changes you need in order to create organizational changes too.


  1. Seeing The Big Picture

Be aware of what’s going on, such as situations, processes, and dilemmas in your workplace. If you tend to isolate, or veer away from finding out anything other than what’s on your personal to-do list, then you’re missing out on vital information that is impacting your entire organization. Stay informed, being observant and caring.


2. Understanding Feelings




If you saw this woman with her head in her hand, sitting in front of a laptop, what would you do? What would you say to her?

Here’s a multiple choice quiz to test your response style:

a. Make a joke. “Hey what happened, did someone die? Lost the lottery again?”

b. Try to cheer her up to ease your discomfort: “Hey, wipe that frown off your face, let’s get happy!”

c. Ask a question: “Hey, looks like something’s frustrating you.”

If you answered c, then you came at this from a compassionate standpoint. Asking questions and listening are two of the greatest compassion builders around. Yes, there are loving meditations you can also work on, and I encourage you to do just that. But putting this into action requires us to do things to create a new normal for our responses.

Listening helps you get out of yourself and focus on the needs and feelings of others. When you do that, you cultivate your compassion skills. It’s an all around benefit.

Try this exercise:

Sit with a friend and have them share about a challenging situation for 2 minutes. Your job is to LISTEN. You may not interrupt or offer advice. You may not even nod your head, as that’s a way of communicating. Hold a still, silent, loving space for that person to share a challenge. Your urges to solve, fix, and move on will be immediately put to the test. Be sure to switch roles for another 2 minutes so you can experience what it feels like to be fully heard and given the space. This is a great exercise for a teambuilding event.

3. Move From “Me” to “We” Mindset


Knowing we’re all in this together, and feeling part of something bigger than ourselves elevates people to be their best. It strengthens the workplace relationships, keeps people on board with the company vision, and creates positive change.

Brain scientists who’ve researched human behavior note the evolutionary need for humans to stay together for survival. We have vulnerable offspring who need protecting, we rely on others for our survival as a species. Compassion is a natural human trait that can take us to our next phase of greatness in business and in the world around us.


Nancy Marmolejo

Author Nancy Marmolejo

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