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The best definition of compassion I know comes from the eminent Tibetan scholar Thupten Jinpa. Jinpa is also the longtime English translator for the Dalai Lama. He has a charmingly mellow and gentle voice, so the Dalai Lama mischievously makes gentle fun of it every now and then (“See, I have deep booming voice, but this guy, his voice so soft,” the Dalai Lama would say, and they would all laugh out loud).

Jinpa defines compassion as follows: “Compassion is a mental state endowed with a sense of concern for the suffering of others and aspiration to see that suffering relieved.”

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Specifically, he defines compassion as having three components:

  1. A cognitive component: “I understand you”
  2. An affective component: “I feel for you”
  3. A motivational component: “I want to help you”

The most compelling benefit of compassion in the context of work is that compassion creates highly effective leaders. To become a highly effective leader, you need to go through an important transformation. Bill George, the widely respected former CEO of Medtronic puts it most succinctly, calling it going from “I” to “We.”

This shift is the transformation from “I” to “We.” It is the most important process leaders go through in becoming authentic. How else can they unleash the power of their organizations unless they motivate people to reach their full potential? If our supporters are merely following our lead, then their efforts are limited to our vision and our directions… Only when leaders stop focusing on their personal ego needs are they able to develop other leaders.

The practice of compassion is about going from self to others. In a way, compassion is about going from “I” to “We.” So if switching from “I” to “We” is the most important process of becoming an authentic leader, those who practice compassion will already know how and will have a head start.

But wait, there’s more. I found the work of Jim Collins, documented in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, to be even more illuminating.

The premise of the book is itself fascinating: Collins and his team tried to discover what makes companies go from good to great by sifting through a massive amount of data. They started with the set of every company that has appeared on Fortune 500 from 1965 to 1995, and they identified companies that started out merely as “good” companies that then became “great” companies (defined as outperforming the general market by a factor of three or more) for an extended period of time (defined as fifteen years or more, to weed out the one- hit wonders and those that were merely lucky). They ended up with a set of eleven “good to great” companies and compared them to a set of “comparison companies” to determine what made the merely good companies become great.

The first and perhaps the most important finding in the book is the role of leadership. It takes a very special type of leader to bring a company from goodness to greatness. Collins calls them “Level 5” leaders. These are leaders who, in addition to being highly capable, also possess a paradoxical mix of two important and seemingly conflicting qualities: great ambition and personal humility. These leaders are highly ambitious, but the focus of their ambition is not themselves; instead, they are ambitious for the greater good. Because their attention is focused on the greater good, they feel no need to inflate their own egos. That makes them highly effective and inspiring.

While Collins’s book convincingly demonstrates the importance of Level 5 leaders, it (understandably) does not prescribe a way to train them. I do not pretend to know how to train Level 5 leaders either, but I am convinced that compassion plays an essential role.

If you look at the two distinguishing qualities of Level 5 leaders (ambition and personal humility) in the context of the three components of compassion (cognitive, affective, motivational), you may find that the cognitive and affective components of compassion (understanding people and empathizing with them) tone down the excessive self- obsession within us, and thereby create the conditions for humility. The motivational component of compassion, wanting to help people, creates ambition for greater good. In other words, the three components of compassion can be used to train the two distinguishing qualities of Level 5 leadership.

Compassion is a necessary (but maybe insufficient) condition for Level 5 leadership, and therefore, one way to begin training Level 5 leaders is compassion training. This is one compelling benefit of compassion at work.

Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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