The crises the world is facing – climate change, substantial healthcare and income inequities, and ongoing regional conflict and war – are substantial, and call for decisive responses. When we explore compassion, our own intentions, and our power to lead real systems change, not just symptoms on the surface, we see that compassion offers the power and strength that are necessary to confront the biggest challenges in the world today.

Go deep in your understanding of compassion

What do you think of when you think of compassion? Compassion is a very rich topic, and one that can be easily misunderstood when viewed narrowly. The traditional definition of compassion – the awareness of the suffering of another combined with the desire to help ease that suffering – is only a start towards a deeper understanding of the subject.

Compassion includes four elements: awareness of suffering, a connection to the suffering in a way that makes you feel that the one suffering is worthy of your attention, an empathic response to the suffering, and a move to action to help relieve the suffering. Compassion isn’t pity or sympathy, which only includes the first two aspects in some way, awareness plus a connection to the suffering. It isn’t empathy, either, which lacks the action aspect of compassion.

In addition, compassion can manifest itself in many forms, some gentle and nurturing and others fierce and courageous. When a friend is grieving, for example, sitting with them and simply holding their hand is a perfect offering of compassionate action. On the other hand, when someone in power is creating suffering in others, speaking truthfully to them about the impact of their actions is a compassionate act that requires great strength and courage.

Go deep in your understanding of your compassionate intentions

Compassionate action must be focused on the needs of the recipient of compassion. While the process often starts with “I want to do more good in the world,” the “I” needs to be moved to the side very quickly. If we offer support to someone without an adequate depth of understanding of their needs, the support can backfire. The desire on the part of the recipient to be grateful for support, and the power dynamic between giver and receiver can make it extremely difficult for the recipient of help to speak up and say that the form of help is not what they need.

Books such as Dead Aid, by Dambisa Moyo, Toxic Charity and Charity Detox by Robert D. Lupton, and the recent Epidemic Illusions by Eugene T. Richardson 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.

Research shows that 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 often unknowingly ends up only benefiting the giver.

So, are you clear about your own true intentions? Take a hard look. Are you seeking to serve those with needs, or are you serving your own ego or trying to make a good impression on others?

Go deep as a leader to change the world

Compassionate leaders focus their intentions to relieve the suffering of others, and they go deeper. They also seek to remove the causes of suffering. Otherwise, the same suffering will continue to arise again and again. At this moment in history, the call for compassionate action could not be more urgent.

We have the means to address some of the world’s most pressing issues – climate change and the risk of a mass extinction event, income inequality and widespread extreme poverty, significant conflict in many regions around the world, and limited opportunities for large segments of the population who are marginalized in their cultures. But we also need the will to restructure the systems to lead our world to a place of sustainable and socially just development.

To maintain the motivation and energy needed for our work, compassionate leaders need to cultivate patience and persistence with practice, and trust in their internal compass. Systems change takes time and we may not see any results right away.

In Closing…

Compassion is an enormously powerful, beneficial emotion. If we will allow ourselves to tap into it fully, with a clear understanding of the needs of the world, we will be able to respond with clarity and wisdom.

This is the call to compassionate leaders everywhere: Summon the courage to change the system right where you are, to the greatest degree you are able. When we all respond to this call, our combined efforts will bring forth the potential for justice and equality so that everyone can thrive.