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Compassion in Leadership

The following post is adapted from my personal academic coursework.


Compassion in Leadership

Neil explained that “‘compassion’… …is a combination of two Latin words, namely patior and cum, and can literally be translated ‘to suffer with.” Modern perspectives expand upon this literal definition. Parkyn’s psychological perspective states that “compassion… …[is] the emotion[al response] that people experience when they come in contact with the pain and suffering of other people…, [their empathy, and when they] … do something about [the other people’s] suffering.” Ganzevoort explains that compassion consists of an understanding of human connectedness, a willingness to be emotionally touched by another, and a willingness to accept responsibility for the other’s situation. Both definitions begin with empathy, but become compassion when the action begins. Lilius et al. define compassion as “an individual response to personal suffering.” Put differently, in the same way that “boiling” is when a liquid becomes a gas, “compassion” is when empathy becomes action.


Why Merida Focused on Compassion

This idea of compassion is a central theme in Merida’s Christian exposition of 1 & 2 Kings. Whether its presence serves as a typological indication of the coming Messiah, or its absence highlights our need for Him, compassion is an Old Testament concept which points the reader towards the God of compassion. Merida chooses to focus on compassion because it is important to understanding the character of God and Scripture, it is a prominent theme in 1 & 2 Kings, and it is relevant to society and leadership in the 21st century.


Compassion is Central to God’s Character

Compassion is an integral part of who God is. God explicitly displays His compassion toward humanity throughout the Bible. When Adam is alone in the world, God empathizes by saying in Genesis 2:18 (NKJV) that “it is not good for man to be alone” and acts by “mak[ing] him a helper comparable to him.” When Adam and Eve sin, God empathizes with their fallen state and did not want them to live forever in it, so He acted by separating them from the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:22-24). When “God heard [the Israelites’] groaning…, …God looked upon the children of Israel, and God acknowledged them” (Exodus 2:24-25). God’s empathy became compassion when He “[came] down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians…” (Exodus 3:8).


Compassion is Important to Scripture

There are many more Old Testament examples of God’s compassion. Compassion is at the heart of God’s character. When one understands the centrality of compassion to who God is, it makes clear the importance of compassion as a theme throughout the Bible. Abram displayed compassion when he learned of the pending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Knowing his nephew Lot was living in Sodom, he empathized with him and quickly acted, asking God, “Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked?” (Genesis 18:23). Jesus, the visible iImage of the invisible God, was “moved with compassion” when he empathized with a leper’s suffering and acted to heal him in Mark 1:41. Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion, death, and resurrection tell the ultimate compassion story in scripture. Jesus’ empathy for human suffering was so great that he acted by coming “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). He was crucified “for the joy that was set before Him” (Hebrews 12:2), and after empathizing with us in death, acted by being the resurrection (John 11:25) and rising from the tomb (Matthew 28:2-6).


Compassion is Prevalent in 1 & 2 Kings

Another reason Merida focused so much on compassion was because of its prevalence in the text he exposited. While it is common throughout the Bible, when considering the themes of 2 Kings, the reader simply cannot escape the theme of compassion. Merida draws attention to God’s compassion toward Elijah, stating that God “ministered to [Elijah] with patient grace and tender compassion.” Indeed, God empathized with Elijah’s desire for death and acted by answering Elijah with a freshly baked cake. God also empathized with the Israelites suffering under King Ahab and acted by making them victorious twice against the Arameans (1 Kings 20:1-30).


In addition to God’s compassion, Merida also points out that Elisha “is a compassionate servant of the people.” Merida identifies Elisha’s compassion because he was empathetic toward people and acted by allowing God to perform miracles through him. Through Elisha, God provided oil for an impoverished widow, provided a son for a barren woman, resurrected the same child after he died, purified a poisoned pot of stew during a famine, and multiplied barley loaves to feed 100 men (2 Kings 4).


Merida shows more of Elisha’s compassion in 2 Kings 5 and 6. Elisha continued to show compassion to those suffering by allow God to use him to heal the Syrian commander Naaman’s leprosy and cause a borrowed axe head that had been dropped into the Jordan River to float so that the borrower would not be indebted to the lender. Merida focused on compassion because it saturates 1 and 2 Kings.


Compassion is Relevant Today

While compassion plays an important role in the Bible and history, it is perhaps more relevant today than it ever has been. Basran et al. identify compassion as “one central domain of prosocial leadership.” They contrast prosocial leadership, in which the group’s needs take priority, with antisocial leadership, in which the leader prioritizes his or her own needs above the group’s. The intersection of globalization and the virtual world mean that humanity is simultaneously more connected and more detached from one another than ever before. In such an environment, prosocial leadership is the clear path forward and compassion is its key feature.


Society Has Confused Empathy with Compassion

Unfortunately, at the time the world most needs compassion, it is most confused about it. People have confused empathy (a feeling) with compassion (an action). One example of this is the sending of “positive thoughts” across social media during times when people desperately need actions, not thoughts and feelings. As James 2:15-16 asks:

If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things they need which are needed for the body, what does it profit?


Compassion is Vital for Leaders

In the professional world, organizations, and consequently leaders, are always looking for a competitive edge. Brouns et al. state that “servant leadership has much lower conceptual overlap than… [other leadership styles and] …appears as the most promising precursor of a wide range of desirable leadership outcomes.” Furthermore, they found that “compassionate love is a cornerstone of servant leadership.” Thus, compassion is fundamental to servant leadership, the “most promising” leadership style, and is consequently an important attribute for leaders.


Moreover, Zoghbi-Manrique-de-Lara and Viera-Armas identified four factors of the compassionate process—empathic concern, common humanity, mindfulness, and kindness—and found that when feelings of common humanity increased, so did employees’ interpersonal organizational citizenship behaviors. Zoghbi-Manrique-de-Lara and Viera-Armas also found that leaders can foster followers’ esteem for others and their importance and feelings of inclusion “into perceptions of peers as part of the larger human experience or human condition” which leads them to act compassionately on behalf of the common good.


Shuck et al. stated that “compassion is accessible to everyone… …and may not conform to traditional boundaries…, …which highlights the potential for compassionate leadership to be different from traditional… …leader behavior.” Thus, anyone capable of showing compassion may have the potential to lead.


Compassion is vital to leaders because of its importance to servant leadership, its ability to be developed to motivate followers to act on behalf of the common good, and its accessibility which allows everyone the opportunity to participate. Compassion has been the turning point for people suffering since the dawn of time. In the 21st century, it is high time for compassion to become the turning point for society and leadership.


References

Basran, J., Pires, C., Matos, M., McEwan, K., & Gilbert, P. (2019). Styles of leadership, fears of compassion, and competing to avoid inferiority. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 2460. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02460


Brouns, T., Externbrink, K., & Blesa Aledo, P. S. (2020). Leadership beyond narcissism: On the role of compassionate love as individual antecedent of servant leadership. Administrative Sciences, 10(2), 20. https://doi.org/10.3390/admsci10020020


Holy Bible, New King James Version. (2020). Thomas Nelson (Original work published 1982).


Merida, T. (2015). Christ-centered exposition: Exalting Jesus in 1 & 2 Kings. B & H Publishing Group.


Neil, I. A. (2016). Compassionate leadership? Some reflections on the work and life of Michael Lapsley. Verbum Et Ecclesia, 37(1), 1-9. https://doi.org/10.4102/ve.v37i1.1629


Shuck, B., Alagaraja, M., Immekus, J., Cumberland, D., & Honeycutt-Elliot, M. (2019). Does compassion matter in leadership? A two-stage sequential equal status mixed method exploratory study of compassionate leader behavior and connections to performance in human resource development. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 30(4), 537-564. https://doi.org/10.1002/hrdq.21369


Zoghbi-Manrique-de-Lara, P., & Viera-Armas, M. (2019). Does ethical leadership motivate followers to participate in delivering compassion? Journal of Business Ethics, 154(1), 195-210. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-017-3454-1


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