Finding My Compass as a Compassionate Leader

CJ Callen

The Spark for the Post
I recently attended a talk on compassionate management with LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner and Wisdom 2.0 founder Seth Gordhamer. In the course of their conversation, Weiner made the case for compassionate management that focuses on the whole person, is grounded in empathic listening, and allows an employee to bring their “whole self” to their work. He also reminded us that it takes energy to work with people in a compassionate way. As a result, compassionate management has to be embraced by an entire company in order for it to succeed. He believes that compassionate companies are better positioned to thrive and so it is not only the right thing to do but also the smart thing to do.

The Quest - and the Messy Truth
I strive to be a compassionate leader (my use of the term encompasses compassionate management as well) and I realize that I have to do it on my own terms (though not alone). I am unlike many nonprofit workers – and it’s not just because I'm an introvert. Last week I was reminded of my "difference" while serving on a career panel for transitional age youth. During the networking period at the end, a young African American woman came up to me. She said she wondered what it was like for me as a woman of color to lead a nonprofit and that she would have brought up the subject in the large group except “you know, people act so uncomfortable when you bring up race.” My reply was straight: “It is really hard.” That prompted me to lay it all out: how you have to deal with ignorant and sometimes plain malicious people who think you are stupid and lazy, no matter the truth that you can’t go from the projects to Stanford University being either. The young woman said that, rather, maybe I’m perceived as a “triple threat” being Black, a woman, and smart. Her comments reminded me that even though people might be particularly doubtful of my leadership, I need to lead with compassion, which means showing compassion to my “haters.” The challenge for me is to bring compassion to all, even those who say, “No, you can’t” whether due to racism, chauvinism, or some other “ism.”

What Does Being Compassionate in My Leadership Look Like?
I have compressed it into three basic things for me:

  1. Being in service to others – This basic posture and shift in perspective allows me to lead as best I can with grace and humility.
  2. Empathic listening – This strengthens my relationship with others and makes me a better servant-leader.
  3. Placing heart before ego – This is a key because it helps me do this work from a place of love and it keeps the ego at bay, the latter which tends to shift my focus onto all the wrong things.

The Twist - All Aboard!
To do more than strive and to actually be a compassionate leader within my organization, I need support from my board. They must embrace compassionate governance.

So the formula is simple:

I can't wait to share our success if we become a truly compassionate organization. Along the way I will gauge our progress by asking the following questions:

  • Is our organization a place where people feel they can speak up if they don’t like how they are being treated?
  • Are board and staff empathic listeners?
  • Are emotions given their due?
  • Does learning trump criticism?
  • Is acting with kindness the norm?

But wait, there’s more! On the road to answering a resounding “yes” to those questions, I need help from my fellow nonprofit leaders. Will you engage in playful inquiry into compassion in leadership? Read on to learn how.

Radical Compassion
Here’s my call to nonprofit leaders: Let’s strive for not just compassion but radical compassion in our sector.

So what’s radical compassion? It’s a way of being authentic and using empathic listening to connect deeply with yourself and others. Visit to find out all you need to get started. Here’s an excerpt from the site that explains a little more about the concept and tools of radical compassion:

"Radical Compassion offers tools and practices to help you more fully integrate compassion and joy into your life and to support a world where everyone has access to resources to meet their needs.

These practical, learnable skills support:

  • Transforming blame and criticism into consideration and respect, through connection to the underlying needs that drive behavior
  • Discerning what is actually happening right now, distinguishing observation from opinion
  • Understanding the positive intention of our emotions: feelings indicate that something is important right now
  • Identifying underlying universally shared values to motivate and support connection
  • Informing creative choices that work for all concerned
  • Interacting with the dynamics of power in ways that increase cooperation and satisfaction in our relationships.”

For more inspiration –here’s a talk on YouTube on radical compassion.

Now you know that there’s actually a worthy pursuit that might even trump logic models and dashboards as the key to future of the nonprofit sector: On your mark, get set, GO!

And if you want to talk about it, shoot me an email.

C.J. Callen is the CEO of the Youth Leadership Institute and a board member of Bay Area Blacks in Philanthropy and The Whitman Institute. She has worked in nonprofits and philanthropy for over 20 years, including positions at Changemakers, Northern California Grantmakers, the Tides Foundation, and Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth.

Read C.J.’s other guest blogs for CompassPoint on leadership:

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