Contemplative Leadership: Compassion, Power & Hope

Contemplative leadership requires a countercultural paradigm shift, which chooses enlightened compassion over self-centered or socially conditioned power.  This power shift from dominating, controlling power to the power of love is supported by daily practices and disciplines.

When compassion fills my heart,

free from all desire,

I sit quietly like the earth.

My silent cry echoes like thunder

throughout the universe.

– Rumi

What does it mean for us to be called to compassion, graced with the capacity and the desire?  What do we notice about the habits of the ego that can separate us from others-and from that desire?  How is it possible for power to shift from dominating and controlling to the power of love?  Can we fan the flames of compassion and invite it to become more fully alive in us as we practice open-hearted acceptance?

Compassion, from the Latin, means “to suffer with.”  From the Buddha, “Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others. It crushes and destroys the pain of others; it shelters and embraces the distressed.”  In Hebrew, the word for compassion is “rachamim,” which comes from the same root as “rechem,” meaning “womb.”  Meister Eckhart tells us, “From all eternity God lies on a maternity bed giving birth.  The essence of God is birthing.”  “The view of the Divine as ‘womb of compassion’ captures the vast benevolence that underlies all of creating including our own coming into being.”  Born of compassion, we desire to live in compassion.

Scientists have recently discovered that we are gifted with a mirror neuron system.  Simply put, areas of our brain activate in alignment so that when others act or feel a certain way, our neurons recognize the action as our own.  When we are profoundly connected, our autonomic nervous systems join in harmonious rhythm.  And when we do good, there is increased activity in the pleasure centers of our brain.  “If you want others to be happy,” says the Dalai Lama, “practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”   Science now stands behind a premise held by all major religions: we are designed for compassion.  What a joyful alignment: out of Divine compassion, we are created in a way that enables and reinforces our desire to be compassionate!  

But of course we don’t live in continual connection and compassion.  Jerry May once defined compassion as “love with all the desire, control, will, self/other and body/mind subtracted from it.”  Ah, yes; there’s the rub!  Subtracting out our desire, control, will, self/other and body/mind doesn’t always come so easily!  

Our ego invites us to notice what unique and wonderful individuals we are.  And of course we are!  But when our ego looms large, we begin to differentiate and to make others-well, “other.”  This separation that makes you “one of them” breaks the compassionate connection.  Race, gender, religion, ethnicity, political party-so many things can divide.  To that list, we add the hierarchy of most of our organizations.  My ego may relish that I am “committee chair.”  Or that I am the “boss;” you are my “employee” or “subordinate.”  Our language and our experience often invite us to enjoy the power of being “the leader.”  I am in control; you are not.  And the way we sometimes speak of the earth and all that lives on this beautiful planet invites us to feel “different and superior” and free to use the “resources” as we wish.

When driven by ego, our power (the capacity to act) is represented by confidence, competence, expertise, titles, success, degrees, stature, money, self-esteem and recognition.  It’s a zero-sum game.  To “win,” I need to have more than you have.  To keep winning, I need more and more.  Compassion struggles to survive in this space.  And it probably goes without saying that this hardly represents the contemplative leadership we hope for.  

Contemplative, compassionate leadership is prayerfully attentive to the True Leader.  We lead by grounding ourselves in the deep wisdom that is available to us when we are present and open to God.  Power, the capacity to act, is available as the Spirit works through us.  This power is centered in the sure knowledge that we are all one.  The Good Samaritan crossing the road to bandage the wounds, graced to see the Divine in another person-this is the leadership we’re invited to in every domain of our lives.  

Compassionate leadership is not wimpy; in fact, it can be incredibly fierce!  That Samaritan had to have a firm resolve to deny society’s definition of “the other,” to open his heart to compassion and to take action.  Sometimes our compassion can come at great personal cost.  

So how do we live compassionate, contemplative leadership? For me, it’s particularly challenging when I’m in a role that’s traditionally defined as a leader-committee chair, consultant, interim executive director.  How do I live into contemplative, compassionate leadership when my experience and perhaps others’ expectations invite a traditional view of leadership as positional or expert power?  

I’ve spent most of my life researching, teaching and practicing what we’d traditionally call leadership.  Honestly, I’m still unlearning most of that.  And opening myself to contemplative leadership in a role that seems to invite traditional leadership is a learning edge and a delicious irony!  

I don’t know contemplative leadership in the way that I used to know traditional leadership.  So I’ll share with you what I sense thus far.

  • Compassionate leadership is deeply embodied.  I believe that I’m invited to sink into that Divine compassion that flows through and around us.  Fully present and available to God, I can be more fully present and available to those around me.
  • Compassionate leadership is resolute and powerful in its commitment to the Divine in all beings.  Compassion knows that silence is valid communication; it is timeless and refuses to be hurried.  Compassionate, contemplative leadership stays the course.  When I feel pushed away, unappreciated, dismissed, I can try to stay open, present and available.  Out of love for others, I can choose to hold them accountable for the impact of their actions.  
  • Being a compassionate leader doesn’t mean I always act the way others wish I would.  I can invite others to share where they are called so that we can listen together.  Ultimately I make decisions that I pray are aligned with our call.  
  • Compassionate leadership is gentle to one’s self.  I strive to recognize my own shadow side and notice how I project that on others.  I seek to notice and acknowledge my fears.  I try to forgive myself for who I am not.  And I continually hope to claim that who I am now is sufficient.   To practice compassion for oneself may be the most difficult of all. As Mary Oliver writes, “When will you have a little pity /for every soft thing/that walks through the world,/yourself included?”

How do we practice self-compassion?  We begin by connecting to our body, to opening out heart to things just as they are in the present moment.  Only in the reality of the present can we love, can we awaken, can we find peace and understanding and connection with ourselves, the world, and God.   

The joy of compassion is that it is reciprocal.  We don’t have to get anywhere to begin.  In expressing compassion for ourselves, we express compassion for others.  And in expressing compassion for others, we experience compassion for ourselves.  There is wonderful power and grace in this exchange.  Janet Hagberg writes beautifully about this in her book, Real Power, where she suggests getting to know someone “on the fringe” and letting that person be a mentor for a substantial length of time.  Doing this can tap into something deep inside and eventually allow a “look at your own homelessness, your own inner prisons, your own retardation, your own battering in new and more compassionate ways.” Wasn’t that the way that Jesus invited?  When he reached out to the poor, the sick, the outcast, didn’t he invite us to reach out in that mutual exchange of love and learning?  

Embracing compassion embraces hope.  Compassion views suffering as a universal experience and bridges the distance between people as we share pain through our heart connection.  “In separateness lies the world’s great misery,” say the Buddha. “In compassion lies the world’s true strength.”   We can lose ourselves in compassion so that focusing on how we feel becomes a space too small for us.  We can find ourselves in compassion as we connect to the Divine.  


Brach, Tara.  Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha.  New York: Bantam, 2003.

Chodron, Pema.  Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living.  Boston, MA: Shambala, 2001.

DeMello, Anthony.  The Way to Love.  New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Greenleaf, Robert K. Servant Leadership.  New York: Paulist Press, 1977.

Hagbert, Janet O. Real Power: Stages of Personal Power in Organizations.  Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Co., 2003.

Kornfield, Jack.  A Path with Heart: A Guide through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life.  New York: Bantam Books, 1993.

Morrison, Nancy K. and Severino, Sally K.  Sacred Desire: Growing in Compassionate Living.  West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2009.

Roy, Denise.  Momfulness: Mothering with Mindfulness, Compassion and Grace.  San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2007.

February 02, 2013 by Leah Rampy
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