What is compassion?

In its simplest expression, compassion is the awareness of the suffering of another combined with the desire to help relieve that suffering. We define compassion as being comprised of four elements: awareness of another, connection to the other in an understanding way, an empathetic response of sensing the other’s suffering, and the desire to take action.

Compassionate leaders require skills in each of the four areas: awareness, connection, empathy, and action.

What compassion is not.

Compassion isn’t primarily about being nice, although compassion acts are often extremely nice. Compassion isn’t about being passive, because action is a critical component of compassion. Compassion isn’t about giving and giving and giving, because no one has an infinite well of giving upon which to draw. It isn’t these things because being nice or passive or overly giving are not effective strategies for relieving another person’s suffering. In fact, these can be direct causes of burnout and adding to your own personal suffering.

Treating symptoms or treating causes?

There is an entire body of literature dissecting the failed efforts to relieve suffering around the world. Books like Dead Aid, by Dambisa Moyo, Toxic Charity and Charity Detox by Robert D. Lupton, and When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert show that many well-intentioned efforts seeking to relieve the suffering of others either don’t make a difference, or in many cases make things worse.

When we offer others what we think they need without a deeper awareness of true needs, that can often backfire via increased dependency or a negative impact on the recipient’s sense of autonomy.

Research shows that true compassion benefits both the giver and the receiver. The tragic irony of this often appears in the philanthropic and humanitarian sectors. A donor can offer solutions based on their own worldview, feel positive about their actions, depart the scene, and leave the recipient worse off. A well-intentioned attempt to relieve the suffering of another ends up (often unknowingly) only benefiting the giver.

Compassion requires courage and wisdom.

The solution to complex problems is, by definition, never simple. Part of the solution to the philanthropic challenge discussed above is to gain a clear understanding of the root causes of suffering in others. The problems are often like an iceberg – most of the real situation is hidden beneath the surface of what we initially observe. Offering a small token of support that addresses just the immediately observable is like offering a band-aid to someone who is chronically ill. True compassion requires the wisdom to recognize the depth of the problem and the courage to take the actions necessary to address the problem’s roots.

Other times the problem is clear, but there is nothing easy about the solution. For example, if an employee is ill suited to their current position, there is nothing compassionate about allowing them to wallow in the misery of their mismatch. Nor is it compassionate to simply let them go, unsupported. A compassionate leader works with the employee to reach an understanding the cause of why it’s not working out, and then takes the time to help the employee get into a more appropriate situation. There is nothing soft, nothing easy about doing that. This requires fierce compassion.

If something looks like it is too compassionate…

…then it probably isn’t compassion. It is probably well-intentioned, but misguided kindness. And what appears kind or loving when viewed in the context of the tip of the iceberg, can reinforce the root causes below the surface. Compassion recognizes that to relieve suffering we must address what exists deep down, however challenging that may be.