One of the facets of leadership explored in Potential Project’s recent book ‘The Mind of the Leader’ (Harvard Business Press, March 2018), is how always-on connectivity, alongside the added pressures of leadership can neurologically rewire us to disconnect both from people, but also our own moral code. The book also shared practices that can help leaders focus on the right things, reconnecting with their desires to be compassionate and of service.
Disconnection from our ethics
A great example of the disconnection leaders can exhibit came in 2016, when John Stumpf, then the CEO of Wells Fargo, was called before Congress to explain why the bank, which had over $1.8 trillion in assets, had created 2 million false accounts, and, after the fraud was discovered, fired 5,300 employees as a way of redirecting the blame. The recordings of the hearing are a shocking but illustrative case study of how leaders are at risk of becoming disconnected from their ethics and having their decision-making damaged by power.
Even though 5,300 people to lose their jobs, he seemed incapable of acknowledging or connecting with their pain. He apologised, but he didn’t seem remorseful. Rather, he seemed a little taken aback by the whole thing, as if he really didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
Cognitive toll on neurological function
The behavior of John Stumpf can be explained through the research of neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi, who has found that power impairs our mirror-neurological activity — the neurological function that indicates the ability to understand and connect with others.
One global CEO we interviewed shared that constant pressure, the cognitive toll of crafting a strategy, and needing to make tough decisions had made him less connected to others. He had disconnected from colleagues, his friends, even his children. Empathic connection with others had always meant he naturally demonstrate concern for people’s feelings. But his leadership role had eventually meant that empathy was all but absent from his thinking and decision making.
Through our interviews, we heard this time and again. It’s not that power makes people want to be less empathetic; it’s that taking on greater responsibilities and pressure can rewire our brains to disconnect and make us to stop caring about other people as we used to. However, such rewiring can be avoided — and it can also be reversed.
Compassion is the key
While empathy is about feeling other people’s emotions as your own, compassion is an intentional action to also alleviate their suffering. Compassion, being more proactive, therefore can become a habit that mitigates the results from holding power, and enables better leadership and human connections at work.
Of the over 1,000 leaders we surveyed, 91% said compassion is very important for leadership, and 80% would like to enhance their compassion but do not know how. Compassion is clearly a hugely overlooked skill in leadership training.
Based on our work with thousands of leaders, here are a few practical ways to enhance your compassion:
Apply Compassion to Any Engagement
Think of compassion as a verb – that directs your intentions, attention, and actions. Whenever you engage with someone, ask yourself: “How can I be of benefit to this person?” Ask yourself this every time you meet clients, stakeholders, colleagues, family, or friends. Let it be a mantra that drives your intentions, moment by moment, in meeting after meeting.
Seek Opportunities to Show Compassion
John Chambers, the former CEO of Cisco, set up a system informing him within 48 hours of any employee experiencing a severe loss or illness. He would personally write a letter extending his support to that person, instilling a top-down culture of care and compassion throughout Cisco.
Make a daily habit of looking for opportunities to show compassion for someone in need of it. If useful, put a reminder in your calendar.
Do a Daily Compassion Meditation
Compassion can be cultivated through a number of time-tested practices. Research has found that just a few minutes of practice a day will help your brain rewire itself for increased compassion and that with regular training, you can experience increased positive emotions, increased mindfulness, a stronger sense of purpose, and increased happiness. Also, compassion training has been shown to significantly alter the neural networks of our brain in such a way that we react to the suffering of others with spontaneous compassion, instead of distress and despair.