They had gathered to celebrate a great victory: the end of the first Ebola epidemic in Uganda. Dignitaries ranging from the country’s president to public health officials had given speeches. Now it was the turn of Bintou Keita, the UN’s Assistant Secretary General for Africa.
She surprised everyone.
Before reading her speech Bintou Keita paused, looked around, and sensed the mood in the room – and put her prepared remarks aside. She realized there were many people there who had lost loved ones to Ebola, or who were survivors themselves and were still battling the ravaging disease’s after-effects. They were in no mood for speeches or even a celebration.
That pause to read the emotions rolling through a room exemplifies emotional intelligence in action – specifically empathy, the ability to sense feelings in someone else or in a group. Such empathy marks progress along the spectrum that runs from total self-absorption at one end, through empathy to compassion at the other.
Compassion — caring about other people’s wellbeing and taking action to improve it – stands as a hallmark of outstanding leadership. These emotional intelligence abilities have a particular premium in an economy where the most talented workers are free to leave and find work elsewhere.
The Number One reason people depart from an organization: they don’t get along with their boss. Google, for example, found this when they did exit interviews with high-talent engineers who left the company.
The very best leaders, the bosses we all love to work for, are accessible, open, supportive and tuned in. They sense the emotional state of those they lead and work with. They take those feelings into account rather than ignoring them (the habit of those narcissistic leaders we dread working for). And they use that emotional data to operate in ways that benefit all.
Given the strong findings from the Yale School of Management and Wharton that moods are highly contagious in a team, and that positive moods improve group performance while negative ones hamper it, such compassionate leadership should prove beneficial not just to the immediate group, but to organization at large.
Another factor: the emerging importance among talented new hires of a sense of meaning and purpose in organizations. More and more younger gen employees say that they would not work for an organization whose values violated their own. Larry Fink, CEO of Black Rock, has urged companies to find a purpose beyond simple profitability. A compassionate mindset more readily leads to an inspiring purpose.
Beyond these workplace benefits, our times seem to need compassionate leaders at all levels and sectors more than ever. That’s why my wife Tara Bennett-Goleman requested the Dalai Lama to address this need in a meeting with select leaders – and he agreed immediately. We then invited University of Wisconsin neuroscientist (and an old friend) Richard Davidson to help plan this event – and he offered the support of the group he heads there, The Center for Healthy Minds. Tara and I are bringing the book I did with the Dalai Lama, A Force for Good, and Tara’s accompanying website, as co-sponsors.
So, in March I’m making the long trip to India, and up to the mountain town of Dharamsala, for this meeting with the Dalai Lama and a dozen or so young changemakers from around the globe. The Compassionate Leadership Summit will be held March 17 and 18 at the Dalai Lama’s residence. While attendance in the room is strictly limited, the Summit will be shared widely via live stream, and available for viewing any time afterward, and I invite you to watch.
Back to that Ebola meeting. When Bintou Keita realized the roiling emotions of the survivors and the bereft in that room, she did something astonishing. Instead of giving her prepared speech, she paused, and then sang three powerful notes – it’s hard for me to explain the impact of that moment in words, but you can see for yourself. And as she finished people in the room wept freely.