The Joy of Compassionate Leadership

In 2021, it is clear that companies must innovate and transform to not simply survive, but to flourish. Now that everything is being called into question and these repurposed scripts are no longer working, concepts previously scoffed at as the utter opposite of how leaning-in, self-actualized visionaries attract their followers are seeping their way into corporate talk. 

With COVID-19 and an overdue awareness that the very foundation of corporate culture *might* be unjust, compassion is finally getting a PR reboot. Industries, from the financial sector to technology, are dipping their toes into what they suspect is going to be critical part of navigating and flourishing in a reimagined global economy where “was has always been” is “no longer going to cut it.” Employee burnout, mental health, unjust and unsustainable policies call for a way to face reality without wilting from exhaustion, shame, or overwhelm. As Ibram X. Kendi and Brené Brown note, “shame does not lead to social justice” – or any meaningful transformation, for that matter. Compassion is a must-have. 

 The good news is that emerging research and publications offer evidence as to what compassion is and why it matters. The invitation is to now better understand how to develop and integrate compassion into a corporate culture that has, for the most part, been fairly predictable, paint-by-numbers businesses. Even the majority of “disruptors” –that cool codeword for “an alternative way to hold up the system. To do so, many organizations are bringing in resilience and mindfulness training as they see its positive benefits. Garmin saw fewer reports of employees with depressionUnilever in improved employee engagement and less absenteeism due to health improvements like better sleep.  

 Compassion training is also seeing an uptick in interest, particularly related to empathy and mindfulness. Programs like the evidence-based Compassion Cultivation Training out of Stanfordchaired by Dr. Thupten Jinpa, one of the most renowned researchers and practitioners in this field to promote shared humanity for the greater good 

 Such programs allow the mind and the heart to have a place in corporate speak. In the “8Cs of Compassionate Leadership” framework, one of the “doorways” to building compassion in corporate ecosystems is that of chucklesome – having a sense of humor.  



Yes, one important tool to cultivate compassion lies not on the meditation cushion, but in humorOne of the more known vehicles to deliver humor is improv – the art form that works without a script and depends wholly on the ability to “yes, and.” Yes, anda differentiator of effective leaders is the ability to improvise smartly. Improv builds empathy and compassion; future-focused strategic thinking; and the environmental conditions where joy at work is a possibility. 

 The invitation is for leaders who want their organizations to survive and thrive in an upended world without a script to get uncomfortable, get themselves and their people trained in improvisation techniques, and get familiar with working with joy. 

 Yes, and…I feel 

 Improvisation techniques have long been utilized in the training of presentation and public speaking. Increasingly, corporations are beginning to see the wisdom and skills found in what we think of as silly Saturday Night skits to improve the way they communicate, innovate, and leadIn Training to Imagine, Kat Koppett shares how “improvisers practice getting out of their own way, so that they can recognize and use their innovative ideas,” and through applied improvisation, “leaders can increase their ability to inspire and clarify action.” After all, when the script of how “thing have been” no longer work, leaders must know how to improvise. Leaders have no choice but to replace the outdated laughtrack and adapt and imagine with full presence. 

 However, most leaders have been trained to rely only on their mental and cognitive intelligencesIsn’t is what has brought them their successes? Yet as most leaders know, our minds can trick us with our own self-limiting thoughts and distract us with everything else but being in full presenceIf, as Danny Penman of Mindfulness for Creativity emphasizespresence is necessary for divergent thinking, depending on our distractable minds may diminish our ability to be open to new ideas. Even one of the most sophisticated and effective processes for innovation – design thinking –often overlooks a critical step: teaching the non-cognitive skill of empathy. So how can one empathize with the end user (design thinking’s first step) without know how 

 Attius Finch said, “you never know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk about in them.” We cannot just think empathy, we have to experience it. Strategic planning and innovation in uncertainty and upheaval requires leaders to move from thinking about models to embodying lived experiences. Jamil Zaki’s research reminds us that empathy is an iterative process contextualized with whom and what is happeningWe cannot script how the other person feels or our responseIn other words, we improvise when we empathize. 

 Yes, and…I create 

Improvising is inseparable to authentic, future-focused, inclusive leadershipTeaching the skills of improv helps leaders not only to better empathize but also to build the muscles critical in an upended world. While Professor Robert Quinn likely wasn’t thinking about improv comedians when he articulated the four principles as it applies to the fundamental state of leadership, he might as well have been. After all, leaders who understand these principles are 

1) results-centeredbeing open to possibilities that don’t yet exist. Improvisers create entire scenes and realities without an existing script 

2) internally-directedhaving authenticity and willingness to initiate productive conflict. Improvisers must have a self-awareness and wherewithal to introduce a situation to move a scene forward 

3) other-focused: committing to the collective good. The most effective improvisers know it’s not about them – it’s about making their scene partner look good; and  

4) externally-open: gaining knowledge from the environment and departing from the routine. Improvisers draw out relationships and build scenes from what has already been offered and definitely, take detours from expected storylines 

By applying these states of leadership, leaders lead from a core foundation, have the courage to face what is and to imagine what could be, and focus on greater purpose. In other words, we improvise when we innovate. 

Yes, and…I flourish 

Improvising also means that we take risks, we face the possibilities of failure. Since there is no laughtrack to tell an audience when to laugh or not, improvisers have to take risks, be open to whatever happens, and adapt accordingly. Being exposed without a script is scary. It requires a whole lot of empathy, compassion – and a sense of humor. As Sophie Gilbert wrote in The Atlantic, gentle humor along with empathy and connection can neutralize shame. Yet even the mostly highly successful leaders are oftentimes the most self-critical. Some research suggests that CEOs may be twice as likely to be depressed as the general population. The CEO’s mental health has a trickle-down effect on senior leadership and the entire organization. Effective leaders cannot put their head in the sand when things don’t work out. They must face reality, as researcher Kristin Neff notes, and offer self-kindness to be with the tough emotions but not weighed down or paralyzed by them. 

This is why leaders who thrive need to integrate improvisation techniques that celebrate humor into their own development and that of their teams. Humor– in its appropriate forms and timing – allow us to create space, observe, and chuckle with – rather than punish ourselves with guilt and shameWhile the research is still nascent, an emerging body connects humor to positive leadership, work, and engagement. Employees who watch a comedy clip are 10% more productive afterwardsLaughter releases dopamine, improving mood and reducing stress. Fun at work increases morale and motivation 

When was the last time, you heard “joy” as a fundamental core value on Wall Street? (If it’s recent, please share). The 80s epitome of corporate culture was all work, no play. Think about the last time you had a real, genuine laugh. A giggle that took over your entire body, joy seeping into your very bones. You cannot intellectualize your way out of joy. You have to live it and embody itWriter Alison Beard pointed out the sad reality that we go from babies laughing over 400 times a day (most of it, at our own toes) to only 15 times a day by the time we hit 35.  

Improvisational techniques can help us find the hope and joy out of even the toughest times – not to put on rose-colored glasses or avoid. Rather, appropriate humor allows us to face what is and to still have the courage to imagine a reality that does not yet exist. These skills help leaders to develop compassion for others and for themselvesLeaders who are skilled improvisers are more equipped to initiative, create, and innovate while motivating and bringing meaning.  

 As Brad Bitterly (the iron of his last name is not lost) and Alison Wood Brooks note in the recent piece on humor in the workplace: “A life devoid of humor is not only less joyful—it’s also less productive and less creative, for you and for those around you. Abundant benefits await those who view humor not as an ancillary organizational behavior but as a central path to status and flourishing at work. 

 The leaders who will thrive in our shared uncharted future are those skilled in improvisational techniques to imagine, innovate, and include. And they do no fear to embody joy. 

Published by

Belinda Chiu

Belinda Chiu

Belinda believes in the power of play to bring authenticity and compassion for a happier planet. She is on the forefront of the movement to democratize emotional intelligence through Goleman EI as head of educational innovation and a faculty member with the Goleman Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification program. She works to cultivate resilient and mindful leaders through Ignition Coaching LLC, Hummingbirdrcc, and the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. With a background in international education and diplomacy, she also brings experience in competitive university admissions. She is the author of the forthcoming book, The Mindful College Applicant: Cultivating Emotional Intelligence for the Admissions Process. A member of Valley Improv, Belinda currently lives in New Hampshire with Bandit, the pink-nosed pup.


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