Serving As A Bystander

“The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.”  -Thomas Merton

We live in a society that has become increasingly enamored with activity and doing…down time and recharging our batteries is often seen more as a luxury than a necessity in the current world.  Couple this frantic activity with the mounting stress, accountability and transparency of modern society and we have created a culture that is more harried, rushed, agitated, and weary than ever before.  More often than not, we are both engaged and disengaged simultaneously.  Welcome to the digital world.  And unfortunately, this intensifying need to do more and be more has made us much more self-absorbed as individuals and as a society.

As the imbalances of our current circumstances continue to escalate throughout our personal and professional lives…we sense the rising necessity for increasing our efforts towards the teaching and learning of those social and emotional intelligences so needed across the spectrum of our society.  Social and emotional literacies that need to be infused and internalized, beginning at the leadership level.

Leaders not only need to increase their level of social and emotional intelligence…they need to turn a reflective spotlight on those very imbalances that affect them personally and professionally.  Imbalances that very often affect the very organizations and institutions that they lead.

Refocusing our leadership lens will require a high level of self-reflection administered on a continuum.  Skillful leaders understand and acknowledge the need for acquiring a self-reflective stance towards their personal and organizational effectiveness.  They search out honest and truthful feedback, from within and from those they lead.  They create the culture and environment for those discussions to regularly occur.  Transparency and self-honesty heighten awareness and self-reflection that allow them to tune-in to the candid and authentic reality of the current environment and culture that resides within their organization…

Leading to Daniel Goleman’s 2007 TED talk, “Why Aren’t We All Good Samaritans?” which provides a strong and healthy argument for – self-reflective leaders.

In “Why Aren’t We All Good Samaritans?” Daniel Goleman takes the opportunity to push our consideration for why we aren’t more compassionate?   Why is it when we are provided ample opportunities to help others, that we only sometimes choose to help?

Goleman guides us to a study out of Princeton Theological Seminary that tries to answer those very same questions.  The study revolved around a group of Divinity students that were required to give a practice sermon…half were given the topic of the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the other half were provided a variety of random topics.  One by one the students were informed that they would be giving their sermon in the adjacent building.  As each student navigated their way from one building to the next, they had to pass by a man bent over and moaning, clearly in need.

The point of the study was to determine if the students would stop to help?  Or more importantly, whether or not it mattered that they were contemplating the Parable of the Good Samaritan?  And would that have any influence in the matter?

The answer…no.  It did not matter, not at all.

Goleman proceeds to share that the determining factor of whether the student stopped to help or not was based solely on how much of a hurry they thought they were in.  Did they have the feeling that they were late?  Or were they absorbed in what they were going to talk about?  

The key take-away from the study that Goleman communicates to the audience…this is the predicament of our current lives.  We don’t take the time to help because our focus is aimed in the wrong direction.

When we are preoccupied, caught up in our own issues and problems – which so often we are – we don’t notice others.  He describes the spectrum as going from self-absorption, to noticing, to empathy, and then to compassion.  And for this reason, focusing on ourselves and focusing on others is something we need to pay attention to…  

Goleman points out that it is our empathy…our tuning in that separates us.  And when we focus on ourselves, we inevitably turn that part of ourselves off.

The critical points made in Goleman’s TED talk are central to leading in today’s modern society.  Whether you are a parent, a teacher, a principal, a superintendent, or a CEO – when we as leaders become self-absorbed – we turn our natural empathy and compassion monitors off.  Not only do we turn those monitors off, we fail to even take notice.  Notice of those red flags that invoke our sense of empathy and compassion.  Self-absorption seeps away that  ability…and when we fail to notice, we in effect, turn off our ability to incorporate the empathy and compassion that is so necessary for leading in today’s world.

Self-absorption transfers a leader from the center to the periphery of their organization.  Self-absorbed leaders fail to create and facilitate positive and effective organizational environments and culture.  They can’t…they have removed themselves from the process.  Which is unfortunate, since it is one of the most important aspects required of their leadership.

Leading is all about noticing and nuances…about having your finger on the pulse of the very people within your organization.  The very act of leading requires immersing yourself in creating connections and building relationships.  Yet, how can we tend to those very relationships and connections when we are continually caught up and absorbed in our own activity and busyness.

The simple act of noticing – stopping to help the stranger on the road – is often the very act that creates momentum for positive change.  In the environment and the culture.  An act, removed from the self, that creates connection and relationship.

When we notice, when we stop, then so do others.

And when we fail to notice…we limit our ability to engage in and transform the culture and environments of our organizations.  Worst of all, we remove our ability to connect with those we lead in an empathetic and compassionate manner.  Which relegates our leadership to that of a bystander to the very environment and culture that we have been empowered to transform.  Self-absorbed leaders, in effect, become cultural bystanders within their very own organizations.

Recognizing subtleties keeps us from becoming cultural bystanders to our own leadership.

“If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path.”

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