Leading with a Compassion Strategy

By Belinda H.Y. Chiu

27 May 2022

Flourishing in a reimagined global economy requires future-ready leaders to co-create a generative future. Everything we relied on to deliver marketplace dominance is being called into question. Obsolete are the late 1900s Gordon Gecko "you-answer-to-me" or the Y2K "I-drive-growth-in-a-market-economy" mentalities. If a global pandemic, devastating wars, and alarm bells on climate urgency haven’t woken some of us up into action, the last few years have at the very least shone a light on the reality that no organization, team, or individual is separate from each other. We do not coexist as disparate ecosystems; we are all part of the same single ecosystem. The 2020s demand leaders who look beyond cooperation of silos and instead embrace an interdependent  mindset that each stakeholder is a part of the whole and that each decision impacts the same, one system.

Change is a given. As organizational paradigms evolve in response to external factors and socio-cultural shifts, so too must leaders, their mindsets, and their skillsets. Frederic Laloux wrote in 2014’s Reinventing Organizations that organizational evolution mirrors that of human-operated paradigms. Using colors as metaphors, he notes that human organizations have shifted from authoritative, power-focused red, to stable, top-down amber, to growth, management-control orange, to empowered, culture-driven green. He calls attention to what is necessary and needed in the current now: conscious, living-system teal organizations. This emerging paradigm is not new – some ahead-of-their-time companies, such as Patagonia, have long been operating successfully as such – and teal organizations are distinguished by three characteristics:

  • self-management (peer relationships)
  • wholeness (bring all of self to work)
  • evolutionary purpose (all members invited to participate in organizational purpose)

Teal organizations adopt the mindset that they are “living systems [with] the innate capacity to sense changes in their environment and to adapt from within” into their short- and long-term strategies for their organizations to flourish and indeed, for the planet to survive.

According to Tuck Distinguished Professor Vijay Govindarajan’s “Three Box Solution,” such strategies preserve what works, destroy what doesn’t, and innovate for adaptative resilience. It offers leaders clearer discernment to see the arc of viable possibilities with a past-present-future orientation and a deep connection for others and the environment. Leaders don’t survive and persevere though pandemics and social unrest by ignoring the greater good. And quite honestly, the planet cannot wait for leaders who waste time on their egos. 

Yet, as Sharmla Chetty, CEO of Duke Corporate Education notes, “we will not find the leaders of the future with the practices of the past…. We need a new type of leader who approaches the post-crisis period with new attitudes and behaviors.” Such leaders are unafraid to make nimble decisions to lead living systems with and for the collective whole. 

A state of disruption, discord, and discomfort

The current S&P churn rate forecasts that by 2027, 75% of current companies will no longer be on the index. Almost a quarter of the workforce will need to transition to jobs requiring advanced skills as automation accelerates, creating even wider gaps within some communities.

With disruption leaving few industries untouched, Memorial Day 2020 marked a watershed moment for the world. Amid a global pandemic, companies scrambled to hire DEI officers as a signal of their bold new awakening. While some organizations continue to put in the tough work, others remain more performative. Yet as thinkers Ibram X. Kendi and Brené Brown note, “shame does not lead to social justice,” so for any meaningful transformation, organizations must challenge unjust and unsustainable policies while navigating the bumpy journey towards justice with grace.

Vulnerable communities continue to be disproportionately impacted by COVID with intergenerational consequences; the UN estimates that the pandemic will set gender equality back 25 years and reported hate crimes against AAPI communities have surged 150%. The war in Ukraine has added to the 82 million people displaced as a result of conflict or persecution worldwide. These divisions are not new. COVID is simply a louder alarm, shaking the world to its core as deep-seated fissures can no longer be plastered over with well-intentioned memes.

Few are immune to lived experiences of discomfort. Boundaries between “work” and “life” are exposed to be as thinly veiled as they have always been. Well-intended workplace wellness programs can end up being obligations. The Great Resignation, or rather the Great Reprioritization, is upon us, leaving many questioning rising exhaustion rates, unsustainable conditions, and what it means to live with purpose. As mental, economic, social, and physical ill health translate to organizational ill health, leaders are called to bring an truly interdependent mindset to strategize for an unknown future.

A Compassion Strategy

Strategy requires more than the hard skills of forecasting and analysis; it also requires the even tougher skills of wisdom and compassion. In fact, the Tibetan word for strategy, thab-shay, means wisdom through the method of compassion. These concepts of wisdom and compassion have finally become part of accepted corporate lingo, though pioneering C+ suite leaders have long stressed the personal, organizational, and industrywide impact of compassion training, such as former Cisco CEO John Chambers, Fiduciary Trust International Vice Chair Dr. Lisette Cooper, Juniper Networks Chairman Scott Kriens, and JP Morgan Vice Chair Jeffrey Walker.

With an urgency to build a generative future, leaders don’t have a choice – consumers are using their purchasing power to say no to uncompassionate companies. Even the Wall Street powerhouses, who are publishing a “compassion handbook,” due out in 2022, recognize the science of compassion to boost productivity, profitability, and performance; attract and retain top talent; build collaboration, trust, and employee engagement; encourage innovation and adaptability; and enhance consumer loyalty and brand reputation. Fading are the dispelled myths that compassion is hippy dippy applesauce. Rather, cultivating compassion allows for wiser and more strategic decisions because it builds the capacity of concern and capability of action for the wellbeing of others in the face of the good, the bad, and the ugly. As anthropologist Dr. Joan Halifax notes, compassion is “the capacity to be attentive to the experience of others, to wish the best for others, and to sense what will truly serve others.” With market and geopolitical forces constantly asking, “what’s new? what’s next?”, a Compassion Strategy allows leaders not simply to respond to change with agility, but to also capitalize on change as the lever for generative innovation. In other words, compassion invites leaders to more than navigate the waves of change; it invites them to leverage the momentum to get and stay ahead for mutual benefit.

According to one study of 1,000 leaders published in HBR in 2018, 91% said compassion is very important in leadership, yet 80% said they don’t know how to bring it in but want to learn. To cultivate this capacity, however, leaders don’t need to go meditate in a cave for six years (though doing so may have tremendous benefits for some). Having a framework to make small, powerful changes can have broad ripple effects within the ecosystem. Here, the Compassion Strategy offers a useful framework for leaders to consider how they may bring greater awareness, attention, and authenticity to the kind of leader they are, aspire to be, and the world needs. Based on brain-based psychological theory, each component of the Compassion Strategy intersects and amplifies the other:

  1. Centeredness: intentional focus + purposeful play + active agency;
  2. Courage: authentic integrity + healthy conflict + compassionate candor; and
  3. Curiosity: shared connection + improvisational paradox.

We will explore each dimension in this four-part series and how leaders who recognize the interdependence of their decisions are better able to future-proof their organizations. To read the rest of the series, please visit:

Belinda H.Y. Chiu is a trainer and strategist focused on helping individuals and organizations to find positive and intentional alignment of strengths, attitudes, and behaviors for authentic living and thriving teams. She frequently teaches in Tuck Executive Education programs and is known for her dynamic and energetic approach and her ability to bring serious scholarship and research with a sense of fun, curiosity, and simplicity.

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