The first of the eight philosophical limbs of yoga are the yamas, universal moral and ethical commandments for “right living.” They are guidelines for how we can best show up for our lives, and they apply broadly to our actions, words, and thoughts. The yamas are broken down into five “wise characteristics,” the first of which is ahimsa.
Ahimsa literally means not to injure or show cruelty to any living being. However, as adopted in yoga practice and in life beyond the mat, ahimsa is much more than the literal interpretation of nonviolence; it implies that in every situation we should adopt a kind, thoughtful, and considerate attitude and that we should also exercise compassion.
In the early years of our careers we are measured primarily for our individual contributions. Thus, it is often difficult for emerging leaders to recognize that leadership is not solely about them and their ability to attract and direct followers; it is about serving others to bring out the best in the collective group. How else can leaders 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 others. This is how ahimsa—compassion and kindness—makes a leader truly effective and is a first step on the path to enlightened leadership.
I was guilty of the “I syndrome” earlier in my career. Although my intent was pure—I wanted to be a vital force in advancing global health and wellness—I was too focused on my own success. I too often compared myself to others, and rather than support and promote them, I wanted to surpass them to more rapidly advance toward my goals. I also was never satisfied with my present circumstance or the “status quo” and wanted more in terms of opportunity—which I thought could be accomplished by rapidly advancing my rank.
I was wrong. In essence, such behavior served to hold me back by alienating the people I needed to support my desire to more expansive leadership. With the help of a good coach, I learned. My coach gave me a proverbial “slap in the face,” which helped me to shift my thinking and behaviors so I became less focused on myself and more engaged with my team. I now understand that it’s critical to cultivate, maintain, and nurture business relationships, and although I’m still focused on my own success, making sure members of my team are also supported and positioned to realize their own potential is even more critical to me. I realize that in addition to offering my expertise and guidance, my team members want to feel that I respect them, care about them, and that I’ll do whatever it takes to help them. I do and I will.
Look in the mirror. Who are you? Why are you here? What is your life purpose?
Have you thought about these things? Be honest. Once you have a true understanding of yourself, you can gain a better understanding of others and create more effective relationships. The Tibetan scholar Thupten Jinpa, longtime English translator for the Dalai Lama, defines compassion as having three components: (1) a cognitive component: “I understand you”; (2) an affective component: “I feel for you”; and (3) a motivational component: “I want to help you.” The practice of compassion is about going from self to others. To become a highly effective leader you must go through an important transformation from focusing on yourself to focusing on others. Bill George, in Discover Your True North, puts it most succinctly: This shift is the transformation from “I” to “We.”
The most compelling professional benefits of compassion are that it engages employees by building an inspired workforce, and it creates highly effective leaders. The core of compassion is suspending judgment in order to have an appreciation of others’ perspectives when they are different from your own. Compassionate individuals are genuinely concerned about other people and their needs. When others are suffering, they take action to help relieve it. Compassionate leaders strive to create emotionally healthy and positively energized workplaces that support good morale and enhanced employee engagement and productivity. They have a people-centered approach, with a focus on connection and collaboration. Compassionate leaders genuinely care for the well-being of others and are attentive to their needs, which they put before their own.
Managers often mistakenly think that putting high pressure on employees will improve their performance. But what it actually does is increase stress and anxiety. Compassion in the workplace is effective for building trust, which leads to loyalty and employee retention. Feelings of warmth and positive relationships at work also enhance employee productivity and efficiency.
Organizations that foster compassion typically measure overall success in terms of team or collective success rather than individual success. A culture of compassion has been positively correlated with employee wellness, job satisfaction, commitment to the company, and accountability for performance. All of these things can translate into lower levels of turnover and an improved financial bottom line.
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