Awareness and Compassion: The New Frontier in Business Leadership
In recent years, many business sectors and other professional fields have been exploring more “humanistic” approaches to management and leadership. Economists and management science researchers have begun to recognize that the once “outcast” field of behavioral economics represents an important frontier of study, with a Nobel Prize being awarded in 2017 to Richard Thaler, professor of Behavioral Science and Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.*
Business professionals are also becoming increasingly receptive to traditional wisdom, and no longer consider it taboo to discuss traditional culture or religion in the workplace. Likewise, religious institutes are adjusting, seeking to “sanitize” their teachings with limited reference to religious contexts, and a greater emphasis on scientific- and evidence-based discussions that also bypass unwarranted accusations of preaching religion in work settings.
At the “Awareness Leadership Workshop” hosted in Hong Kong in October last year, I had the privilege of moderating two panel discussions with world-renowned speakers on the subject. A few hundred senior executives and management professionals representing broad areas of expertise attended the workshop to learn and shared theories and practices of awareness and compassion.**
Speakers included a world-renowned Vajrayana meditation master, an authoritative expert in cognitive science, neurology, and psychology, a Chinese martial arts superstar, and other leaders in business, social welfare, healthcare sectors. They all agreed on one underpinning message: the practices of awareness and compassion are mutually beneficial to oneself and others—a true win-win strategy. Yet they are not merely instruments for goals such as increased productivity, or improved stress reduction, nor merely “elective” fields of theoretical study; they are invaluable core subjects worthy of persistent and continuous learning, reflection, and practice.
These thought leaders elaborated on how awareness and compassion have become fundamental aspects of their success. In a world full of negativity, confrontation, and mistrust, they are committed to the practice of leadership with awareness and compassion, which empowers people to overcome habitual tendencies, ego, and selfishness to work toward the greater good for others, and to develop humility and a world view that extends beyond the inherently limiting self. They recognize that awareness and compassion can expand our vision and our capacity to love.
Since they can appreciate the stories and perspectives of other people, they are better equipped to understand other people’s circumstances and pain, driving them toward deeper insight and making them even more committed to this journey of self-transcendence. Encountering hypocrites or bullies, these leaders do not patronize or belittle others. They sincerely realize how pitiful life can be without awareness and compassion. They are neither condescending nor self-righteous; they work hard to cause no harm to others. They demonstrate how beautiful it is when human awareness and compassion truly shine.
Business organizations have also been adopting awareness and compassion as important management values. One of the thought leaders in this area is Fred Kofman, a vice-president at LinkedIn. His initiative in conscious business illustrates how it can allow us to find our passion and express our essential values through our work. He argues that “a conscious business seeks to promote the intelligent pursuit of happiness in all its stakeholders. . . . [It produces] sustainable, exceptional performance through the solidarity of its community and the dignity of each member.” (Koffman 2006)
A new field of research in “compassion organization” also proves that when organizations promote the value of compassion rather than stress, they can instigate both a happier workplace and an improved bottom line. One of the reasons behind the improved well-being of employees in a compassionate organization is that compassion strengthens social connection.
In case we are still in doubt about whether doing good will help us do well, whether we should choose awareness and compassion over delusion and coercion, the bodhisattvas and many achieved practitioners set great examples and give us strong confidence. No matter how compassionate and aware we may consider ourselves to be, our achievements are still incomparable and insignificant compared with those of the noble ones. Yet the bodhisattvas never look down on us or give up on helping us. Just as the Buddha taught in the Dhammapada, “Hostilities aren’t stilled through hostility, regardless. Hostilities are stilled through non-hostility: this, an unending truth.” ***
It is precisely because of our lack of awareness that we need to cultivate awareness as a remedy. It is because of our lack of compassion that we need to cultivate compassion as a remedy.
** Awareness Leadership Workshop (Tergar Asia)
*** Yamakavagga: Pairs (Dhp I) (Access to Insight)
Kofman, Fred. 2006. Conscious Business: How to Build Value through Values. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
Why Compassion in Business Makes Sense (Greater Good Magazine)
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Regaining Our Simplicity and Humanity: Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche on Practice in Modern Times
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Venerable Tsunma Lobsang Rinchen Khandro: Acting with Compassion for All Those Suffering from Adversity
“Mindfulness is a Moral Arc:” An Interview with Dr. Lynette Monteiro
Concerning Right Action and Right Livelihood
The Way of the Bodhisattvas