American Association for Physician Leadership


Power Can Corrupt Leaders, and Compassion Can Save Them

Rasmus Hougaard | Jacqueline Carter | Louise Chester

March 8, 2018


Taking on greater responsibility rewires our brains, but it can be reversed. Here are ways to enhance your compassion.

Taking on greater responsibility rewires our brains, but it can be reversed. Here are ways to enhance your compassion.

In 2016 John Stumpf, then the CEO of Wells Fargo, was called before Congress to explain a massive scandal. For more than four hours, Stumpf fielded a range of questions about why the bank, which had over $1.8 trillion in assets, had created 2 million false accounts and, after the fraud was discovered, fired 5,300 employees as a way of redirecting the blame.

During his testimony, Stumpf, who had made it to the top of one of the world’s most valuable banks, appeared to show an utter lack of compassion for others. Though his actions caused 5,300 people to lose their jobs, he seemed incapable of acknowledging their pain. Yes, he apologized, but he didn’t seem remorseful.

Compassion is clearly a hugely overlooked skill in leadership training.

David Owen, a British physician and parliamentarian, has dubbed this phenomenon hubris syndrome, which he defines as a “disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years.”

It’s not that power makes people want to be less empathetic; it’s that taking on greater responsibilities and pressure can rewire our brains and, through no fault of our own, force us to stop caring about other people as much as we used to.

Such rewiring can be avoided — and it can also be reversed.

While empathy is the tendency to feel others’ emotions and take them on as if you were feeling them, compassion is the intent to contribute to the happiness and well-being of others.

Here are a few practical ways to enhance your compassion:

Apply compassion to any engagement: Compassion can become the compass that directs your intentions, attention and actions. Whenever you engage with someone, ask yourself: “How can I be of benefit to this person?” Ask yourself this every time you meet clients, stakeholders, colleagues, family or friends. Let it be a mantra that drives your intentions, moment by moment, in meeting after meeting.

Seek opportunities to show compassion: John Chambers, the former CEO of Cisco, set up a system to ensure he was informed within 48 hours of any employee, anywhere in the world, experiencing a severe loss or illness. He would personally write a letter and extend his support to that person. In this way, he instilled a top-down appreciation of the value of care and compassion throughout the company. Whether you are the CEO or not, make a daily habit of looking for opportunities to show compassion for someone in need of it. If useful, put a reminder in your calendar.

Do a daily compassion meditation: Research has found that just a few minutes of practice a day will help your brain rewire itself for increased compassion and that with regular training, you can experience increased positive emotions, increased mindfulness, a stronger sense of purpose and increased happiness. Compassion training has also been shown to significantly alter the neural networks of our brains in such a way that we react to the suffering of others with spontaneous compassion, instead of distress and despair.

Rasmus Hougaard is the founder and managing director of Potential Project, where Jacqueline Carter is a partner and the North American director. They co-authored The Mind of the Leader. Louise Chester is the U.K. director of Potential Project.

Copyright 2018 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.\

Rasmus Hougaard

Rasmus Hougaard is the founder and CEO of Potential Project, a global leadership, organizational development and research firm serving Microsoft, Accenture, Cisco and hundreds of other organizations.

Jacqueline Carter

Jacqueline Carter is a partner and the North American Director of Potential Project.

Louise Chester

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The American Association for Physician Leadership has helped physicians develop their leadership skills through education, career development, thought leadership and community building.

The American Association for Physician Leadership (AAPL) changed its name from the American College of Physician Executives (ACPE) in 2014. We may have changed our name, but we are the same organization that has been serving physician leaders since 1975.


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