“Leadership requires attention to depth, to feelings, to inner struggles. A leader must wrestle with inward issues. They are expected to have great aspirations, confront great frustrations, achieve great self-control, suffer great betrayals, and manifest great compassion.” — Peter Koestenbaum
There is a lot to suffer about these days. Being a leader in the world today requires a kind of courage and grit that most of us are now in the process of developing. Leaders have a unique role in the midst of difficulty. Often, people turn to their leaders to learn how to be, what to do, what is upside down and right-side up. Leaders who have the skill to keep their mind and heart open in the midst of suffering can offer the most to others.
The question is, how can you be in the world with all of its suffering, as a leader, and keep your heart open? How can you maintain a hold of your own suffering without closing off from others or becoming guarded or overwhelmed?
This is the question I’ve been asking myself and others for years now, because in my work with leaders and as an executive coach, I see the power of open-hearted leaders. They cultivate loyalty, they contribute to a healthy, happy culture, and they keep the good ones. They offer compassion, but don’t get swamped by negativity.
What I know for sure is that more people suffering does not alleviate suffering — it adds to it. Being engulfed in the suffering or spreading it to others (even unconsciously) is not the answer. But we can be more compassionate by keeping our heart open to the suffering around and within us.
I’ve recently begun practicing a mantra I learned through self-compassion teacher, Kristen Neff. Whenever I tap into my own suffering, no matter how great or small, I say to myself:
This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. I can be kind to myself and others in this moment.
By simply acknowledging the moment, I often find that it loses its grip on me. I can return to being the leader I am. I offer myself a tiny oasis where it is A-OK to suffer and to be kind to myself in the process. I don’t engage with my harsh inner critic, who might say something like, “You don’t know anything about suffering! Look at what’s going on in Russia and the Ukraine!”
Besides, I don’t recommend that you suffer all the world’s problems. They’re too vast and complex. And you can’t suffer for someone else.
Some people will see suffering and say, “I feel bad for you.” But that’s not possible. You can’t feel something for another person. You can only feel your own feelings. Of course, what you are seeing or hearing — like on the news — might cause you to suffer. But that is an experience of compassion. It’s you with your heart open.
It’s important to have this clarity so that you can be responsible for your feelings and not project them onto others. Instead, you can connect into your own moment of suffering.
I’ve noticed that I can suffer no matter where I am, often internally warring against myself or others. Noticing this automaticity is the first step. Catch your thoughts – the arguments, the judgments, the resistance – that may be causing your own suffering. See if you can drop the argument and soften into the breath, the breath, the breath.
If there is war raging in the far eastern region, focus on stopping the war with whoever or whatever you are raging against in your own life. Focus your breath and become an ambassador of peace right here. See how long you can keep your own suffering at bay before you venture out into the big wide world’s suffering. This is one of the central tasks of a leader – confronting great frustrations, achieving great self-control, and manifesting great compassion.
Previously published on Forbes