How to Become a Compassionate Leader in 3 Steps
At MDI, we not only develop others, but also ourselves. That’s why our CEO Gunther Fürstberger attended a three-day seminar by systems researcher Peter Senge in Stockholm, where he gained some insights. He reports on his experiences in this blog post.
The Compassionate Leadership Masterclass
Peter Senge wrote a classic of leadership literature in 1990 with “The 5th Discipline”. When I read that he was giving a 3-day seminar in Stockholm as part of the Inner Development Goals Initiative, I knew I had to experience it. I thought about Marcus Aurelius who already said “You have to know the great ones of your time”.
The sold out Compassionate Systems Leadership Masterclass by Peter Senge and Gustav Böll took place in the artistic setting of Fotografiska Museum with about 100 participants from March 29 to 31, 2023.
The seminar title sounds a bit complicated. What is Compassionate Systems Leadership all about? A first key to understanding is the organizer: the Inner Development Initiative. In 2016, UN member states adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Since then, our planet has continued to deteriorate.
A new leadership system for a better planet
Us earthlings have obviously not yet developed the skills and attitude it takes to undo the damage of the industrial age.
This is where the Inner Development Initiative comes in: The change in attitude must begin with the individual. Engaging broadly and deeply with the Inner Development Goals in the 5 categories of Being, Thinking, Relating, Collaborating, and Acting will help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Our planet now needs a different kind of leadership than we know from the industrial age. It starts with feeling nature and other people and should lead to some sense of connection with others or even all beings on the planet.
Hardly anyone wants to intentionally cause grievances, but who is really aware of the effects of their own actions? System thinking can help to understand both short- and long-term impacts and interactions a little better.
New findings on two levels
Learning for me has taken place on two levels during these days. On the one hand, I got to know new tools or deepened known tools. On the other hand, the trainers were an inspiration in their handling of the group and their use of methods.
From the numerous thinking tools I pick out the three that I found particularly typical for Compassionate Systems Leadership.
First, as an overview tool, there is the three-legged chair (see figure 1). The legs represent aspiration, reflective conversations, and systems awareness. If one leg is missing, the stool falls over.
Without a creative imagining of a better environment, there is no improvement. Without reflection or a deeper understanding of systems, we quickly end up in dead ends despite having good intentions.
The ladder of connectedness
The second tool is the “ladder of connectedness” (see figure 2), which confused me initially: From bottom to top, the ladder levels are called “agape, neutral presence, altruism, cognitive empathy, in-group empathy, empathic stress, and emotional distance.”
We can harness gravity to move toward deeper connectedness, i.e., strive more toward the lower levels. Confusion can be a sign of real learning. I could not easily assign this idea to an already stored concept. It seemed to fit most closely with a Buddhist understanding.
We may not achieve agape, all-connected love, but we can create a neutral presence even in difficult situations. It also needs the higher levels: A surgeon should manage to distance themselves emotionally for self-protection.
Neutral instead of empathetic
Distance also helps sometimes in conflicts that go round in circles. Empathic stress is something I can relate to as a father of younger children. When my 8-year-old and my 6-year-old argue loudly with each other, it seems easier for me to demand that they stop for the short term because it helps me reduce my internal tension. But in the long run, it doesn’t help me.
In-group empathy may lead to good cooperation in the team, in the company or even in one’s own country, but at the same time it may exclude those who do not belong to the group. I take it upon myself to practice more neutral presence, which is enduring tension and contradiction.
Now our third and a simpler tool (see figure 3): The principle of creative tension. I already knew that a vision needs the right level of challenge, because something we have already achieved or something we can never achieve is not good as a vision.
I found the continuation of the thought interesting: We can imagine the tension between reality and vision as a rubber band. When that tension becomes too uncomfortable for us, we often tend to either lower our aspirations or not tell the whole truth about the current state.
An energy source for change
A good example are an organization’s sustainability goals. When we consciously seek and hold this tension, we tap into the energy source for change. This principle of creativity is also found in theater as drama, in music as tonus, and in the Greek rhetoric. In this respect, it is not a new idea, but it is effective when we strive for change.
I was also interested in what Peter Senge is like as a person. I have already met some of the “greats of the lecture scene” away from the stage and with some of them I had the impression that it was difficult for them to live the conveyed messages themselves. That is also human.
Peter Senge as a Human
In the morning of Day three, there was an emotionally expressed resistance from a participant who questioned the usefulness of the whole seminar. She said Peter Senge held on to the statement that we always have a choice and do not have to be influenced by external circumstances, despite her doubts expressed the day before.
Now I was curious. Will he maybe feel attacked and defend himself or let it stand as an individual opinion? He did not react immediately, but let other participants speak first. Later, he resonated, apologized, thanked for the learning opportunity, and did so with an authenticity and elegance that really impressed me.
He always treated his much younger co-trainer at eye level and was so moved several times that tears came to his eyes.
In the spirit of Marcus Aurelius, I had the opportunity to meet two greats of our time. Especially the combination of two trainers from different generations fits the challenges of our time.
Even though I have not implemented all of the presented contexts and tools and I am also not sure whether the term Compassionate System Leadership will become widely accepted, I recommend every leader to deal with the basic idea. A more sustainable leadership culture would do us and the planet good.
Mag. Gunther Fürstberger
CEO | MDI Management Development International
Gunther Fürstberger is a management trainer, author and CEO of MDI – a global consulting company providing solutions for leadership development. His main interest is to make the world a better place through sustainable leadership. He has worked for clients including ABB, Abbvie, Boehringer Ingelheim, DHL, Google, Hornbach, PWC and Swarovski. His core competence is leadership in digital transformation. At the age of 20 he already started working as a trainer and he also served as HR manager in international corporations.