Uvinie Lubecki created a leadership curriculum based on the teachings of the Dalai Lama. She and I met on LinkedIn and have been able to transform a social media connection into an authentic friendship and collaboration. This post is an interview that goes deeper into her unique story while providing insights from one of the thought-leaders in the compassionate workplace movement.
Our journey began about six months ago with her reaching out after my first Forbes.com post while I was being impressed with her thoughtfulness in her Wisdom 2.0 talk. Our direct messaging shifted to bi-coastal Zoom conversations and now, we are working experimentally and deliberately on a podcast called the Buddhist and the Pagan. Meet Uvinie and her fierce gentleness in this short video about hope, excerpted from an interview she did for the Fetzer Institute:
Why compassionate leadership? Why now?
If we do not look at our humanity – what we’re doing to ourselves and to the people we work with and for, we’re looking at a bleak future. Our economic growth is not going to come from producing more, but from creativity and innovation to rethink how we live and work. This cannot come about by treating ourselves and employees like machines. We’re seeing the impact of that. We are burning out, so much so that even the WHO has now recognized it as an occupational phenomenon. Depression is now the leading cause of disability worldwide. Increasing incentives and adding more perks will not solve this challenge. We need a new model of leadership, one that enhances our innate human potential while honoring our human limitations. This will require a paradigm shift. To make this change toward a new way of working and leading, we’re going to have to look at our underlying fears and beliefs that keep us stuck in old patterns and worldviews. Our generation has grown up with a worldview steeped in striving, individual performance, succeeding at all costs, and that looks like more money, more power, more status. It is a mindset based on fear and scarcity. To shift this mindset to a new way of leading, we need to transform these fears and reconnect to what gives us meaning and purpose. This is where compassion comes in. Compassion provides the space to understand and recognize our own suffering in order to be of more benefit to ourselves and others. Only by cultivating compassion can we lead sustainable organizations and build workplaces that nurture and cherish true innovation and creativity.
How do you go about doing that in an organization?
We need to start by redefining compassion in leadership. In a survey we conducted, over 80% of leaders misunderstood compassion to mean “being nice or soft” or “loving everyone.” This is not true. Compassion can look fierce or gentle, but it always has an intention to benefit oneself and others. We define compassionate leadership as understanding what you and others are going through, feeling for yourself and others in a genuine way, and taking action to help you and others to be successful. Unless we redefine what compassion means for leaders, bringing it into organizations will be difficult because leaders will misunderstand compassion to be counterproductive to getting things done.
Once we redefine compassion, we can start to apply it in our leadership. Thankfully, we now have scientific research that shows strengthening compassion is not only possible but trainable. In addition, there are evidence-based practices that we can incorporate in our daily lives that can enhance our compassion, resulting in improved wellbeing, resilience, and connection to others. We need more tools and methods to translate compassion into applied leadership behaviors and study their impact over time on business performance. This needs to happen in the real world in order to be impactful. The first step is for leadership teams to cultivate compassion for themselves so that it becomes embodied. When it is embodied, I’ve seen how leaders transform and recognize and define for themselves how compassion can shift their own thinking and way of leading. This is crucial work before we can scale compassionate leadership across organizations. If leaders do not walk the talk and shift how they treat themselves, they do not provide the safety or permission for the rest of the organization to change. Once leaders are able to cultivate and embody compassion for themselves, then it becomes possible to bring these practices in a scalable way to teams and individuals.
How did you become a compassionate leadership expert/trainer? What is your background?
I was born in Sri Lanka and moved to Ithaca, New York when I was two years old. When I was six, we moved to Lagos, Nigeria. At the time, Nigeria was facing massive civilian unrest and political instability. It was the first time I had seen abject poverty. Amidst such suffering, compassion was the only way to stay sane. I didn’t understand that at the time. More than two decades later, I joined the executive team for a business unit within McKesson. I suddenly had everything I thought I had wanted – a loving husband, a home in San Francisco, and a leadership position at a Fortune 10 company transforming health care.
Yet, after some time, I was surprised to find myself absolutely miserable. I was burning out and the leadership model I was being groomed in didn’t show a way out. I became obsessed with a question – how do leaders, with all of the demands made on them, all of the responsibility they hold, and all of the decisions they need to make, stay connected to each other and the people they serve? One day, I was driving over the Bay Bridge and a voice in my head said that I needed to leave to find the answer. After a circuitous path involving going to South India to receive teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, creating a leadership curriculum based on mindfulness and compassion for a leadership development organization called Dalai Lama Fellows, and extensive periods of meditation, I rediscovered the power of compassion. I learned how you can use compassion not just to face suffering from poverty or illness, but to overcome the kind of intense mental suffering leaders undergo today. Much of what keeps leaders in a cycle of suffering is the responsibility they feel they need to individually hold and the personal sacrifices they feel they need to make to ensure their organizations thrive. In addition, leaders are often shamed and blamed because they are noticed most when they mess up. I started developing a compassionate leadership curriculum for leaders because I believe genuine compassion for leaders is rare and needed. A few years later, I founded Leading Through Connection.
What is one action we can take to start leading with compassion?
The first step to compassion is self-compassion. The lens through which we see ourselves is the same lens through which we see others. If we can extend kindness toward ourselves as leaders and recognize when things get tough that we’re doing our best and that our intention is to be of benefit, this can be a powerful practice. This practice can bring space, take us out of fear and judgment, and over time, it can transform our views of ourselves. Ironically, this small habit of self-compassion will do as much for others as for oneself. As the Dalai Lama loves to say, “If you want to be happy, practice compassion. If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.”
Take her advice and think about one specific thing you can do in the next seven days to be more self-compassionate. It can be fierce such as standing up to a critic or more gentle, like taking more time to to be in nature.