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Opening Up a Can of… Compassion

By November 16, 2009A Thriving Planet

Nina and I recently presented at the Southern Colorado Sustainability Conference on the topic of socially responsible leadership. When we used an example from our work with The Coca-Cola Company, a hand shot up and we got an earful: “I can’t believe you even work with that company! All they do is greenwash. The ingredients in their products don’t demonstrate responsibility of any kind!” I felt an odd sense of calm in the face of this onslaught and found myself thinking: “Where does compassion fit in this situation?” Boy, I wish I’d asked that aloud.

Honestly, I could relate to the hand-raiser’s outrage. While my job is to help people and organizations become healthier, more productive, and truly sustainable, I certainly have my own biases against individuals and companies that aren’t sincerely committed to global stewardship.

I get bugged by companies that thump their chests about sustainable business models, while measuring performance solely on short-term profits. And I’m infuriated whenever I discover exaggeration of a product’s wellness benefits merely to prey on consumers’ ill health. And… well, there’s no end to the disapproval I can hold for such practices. On my better days, whenever I start down this spiral of condemnation, I stop and ask myself: “Is there room for compassion here?” A little feisty condemnation can kick-start needed changes, but I’m doubtful that it’s the right fuel to make those changes last.

Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton defines compassion as “the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things.” When we are compassionate, we realize that we are all in this together. And if we’re in this together, then condemning others is condemning ourselves. How productive is that? Compassion is the antidote.

The act of evolving is messy. I cannot name one organization with the “right” approach to social responsibility for all others to emulate. Nor can I point to a single leader who has all the answers for how best to lead a company’s global stewardship. The best leaders I’ve met are humble and driven: the magnitude of organizational transformation that they’re expected to shepherd is not lost on them. A little compassion may be just what they need for the long road ahead.

This preference for compassion over condemnation is becoming recognized on a global scale, thanks in part to a TED Prize which led to the groundbreaking new Charter for Compassion. Created by 18 multi-faith thinkers from numerous nations (with input from over 150,000 contributors worldwide), this effort marks a commitment to restore compassion in both our thinking and our actions across the planet.

The scope of the Charter deeply moves me. Closer to home, I reflect on the hand-raiser’s outrage and appreciate that it’s fiery concern like his that puts in motion the very efforts of large corporations to become more responsible. The best of these organizations are genuinely trying to foster well-being for their workers, their consumers, and the planet we all inhabit. If we, meanwhile, recognize our interdependence and have compassion on this arduous and messy journey, then we may all end up in a better place together.

Photo by geoffbarrattgeoff