Power Can Corrupt Leaders. Compassion Can Save Them
This article was originally published in HBR.
In 2016 John Stumpf, then the CEO of Wells Fargo, was called before Congress to explain a massive scandal. For more than four hours, Stumpf fielded a range of questions about why the bank, which had over $1.8 trillion in assets, had created 2 million false accounts, and, after the fraud was discovered, fired 5,300 employees as a way of redirecting the blame. The recordings of the hearing are a shocking but illustrative case study of how leaders are at risk of being corrupted by power.
Stumpf’s appearance before Congress shows a man who had made it to the top of one of the world’s most valuable banks — and who seems to show an utter lack of ability to have compassion for other people. Even though his actions caused 5,300 people to lose their jobs, he seemed incapable of acknowledging their pain. Yes, he apologized, but he didn’t seem remorseful. Rather, he seemed a little taken aback by the whole thing, as if he really didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
The behavior of John Stumpf can be explained through the research of neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi, who has found that power impairs our mirror-neurological activity — the neurological function that indicates the ability to understand and associate with others. David Owen, a British physician and parliamentarian, has dubbed this phenomenon hubris syndrome, which he defines as a “disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years.”
One CEO we interviewed for our upcoming book was very open about this problem. For more than a decade, he had been the CEO of a large global consumer goods brand, but as time went on, the constant pressure, the heady activity of crafting a strategy, and the need to make tough decisions with tough implications for others had made him less empathetic. He found himself pulling back in his relationships with his colleagues, his friends, and even his children, which was against his nature. Empathy used to be a dominant trait of his personality. He used to know how others felt, and he could naturally demonstrate concern for their feelings. But his leadership role had taken a toll, and eventually, empathy was all but absent from his thinking and decision making. He was matter-of-fact about this when he told us, but remorseful, too.
Through our interviews, we heard variations of this time and again. It’s not that power makes people want to be less empathetic; it’s that taking on greater responsibilities and pressure can rewire our brains and, through no fault of our own, force us to stop caring about other people as much as we used to. But it does not have to be this way. Such rewiring can be avoided — and it can also be reversed.
Compassion is the key. While empathy is the tendency to feel others’ emotions and take them on as if you were feeling them, compassion is the intent to contribute to the happiness and well-being of others. Compassion, therefore, is more proactive, which means we can make a habit of it. By doing so, we can counter the loss of empathy that results from holding power, and in turn enable better leadership and human connections at work.
Of the over 1,000 leaders we surveyed, 91% said compassion is very important for leadership, and 80% would like to enhance their compassion but do not know how. Compassion is clearly a hugely overlooked skill in leadership training.
Based on our work with thousands of leaders, here are a few practical ways to enhance your compassion:
Apply Compassion to Any Engagement
A Chinese proverb says, “There is no way to compassion; compassion is the way.” Bringing compassion into any interaction you have and asking how you can be of benefit to others is the way to compassion. Compassion is something we create by applying it to every interaction we have.
In that way, it can become the compass that directs your intentions, attention, and actions. Whenever you engage with someone, ask yourself: “How can I be of benefit to this person?” Ask yourself this every time you meet clients, stakeholders, colleagues, family, or friends. Let it be a mantra that drives your intentions, moment by moment, in meeting after meeting.
Seek Opportunities to Show Compassion
John Chambers, the former CEO of Cisco, knew that compassion was more than the right thing to do — it also had a positive impact on his organization. He set up a system to ensure he was informed within 48 hours of any employee, anywhere in the world, experiencing a severe loss or illness. Once notified, he would personally write a letter and extend his support to that person. In this way, he instilled a top-down appreciation of the value of care and compassion throughout the company.
Whether you are the CEO or not, make a daily habit of looking for opportunities to show compassion for someone in need of it. If useful, put a reminder in your calendar.
Do a Daily Compassion Meditation
Compassion can be cultivated through a number of time-tested practices. Research has found that just a few minutes of practice a day will help your brain rewire itself for increased compassion and that with regular training, you can experience increased positive emotions, increased mindfulness, a stronger sense of purpose, and increased happiness. Also, compassion training has been shown to significantly alter the neural networks of our brain in such a way that we react to the suffering of others with spontaneous compassion, instead of distress and despair.
Simply follow the instructions below to start your compassion practice:
- Set a timer for four minutes.
- Sit comfortably, relax, and focus your attention on your breath to let your mind settle.
- When you have centered yourself, recall a person dear to you, someone who is experiencing challenges.
- Be clearly aware of the challenges and how it must feel for the person experiencing them.
- With each exhale, imagine you breathe out everything this person needs: warmth, strength, and compassion. Breathe out everything that is positive and imagine it entering the other person.
- While you continue breathing compassion on each exhale, with each inhale, imagine removing all suffering, pain, regret, and hurt from the person — but without you taking it on. Imagine that you’re simply removing their pain.
- When you’re ready, let go of the person and return your attention to your breath.
- When you’re ready, let go of the practice and notice how you feel.