Benevolence and Leadership. Valuable? Possible?

Jul 31

A recent post on the Business Spirituality LinkedIn site asked: “What difference can a benevolent leader bring to people and organizations? Is it possible to be benevolent without being naive?”

I’m not sure benevolence is the right word here. Benevolence, to me, implies giving to others, sometimes without including myself in the benevolence. I find myself preferring the word compassion. The word compassion, to me, has more of a sense of having walked in the shoes of the other, having experienced their suffering, and supporting all of us in moving toward a more joyful, purposeful life. Compassion is essential to good leadership.

One of my life long lessons has been learning how to expand into my own spiritual understanding and power and then use that spiritual understanding and power to support others as they expand into the fully developed, unique individuals they are intended to be. Supporting them does not mean giving them whatever they want. Often, it means challenging their current thought processes or flat out saying ‘no.’ This is the role of the spiritual warrior.

I was very fortunate to have had two wonderful parents. Both were teachers. Both were fair and compassionate. Both valued order and structure, and yet, there was always space for play and creativity in our home. My parents truly led by example. Because I was happy, I never questioned their leadership. I knew I was loved, respected, and valued. I did what they told me to do simply because I trusted them.

Then I moved out into the rest of the world and discovered, over and over, through painful experience after painful experience, that not everyone was as kind, benevolent, compassionate and fair as my parents. Other people said negative things about me, verbally abused me, bullied me, and betrayed my trust. I had to learn how to protect myself from all this negative energy. I had to learn how to detach mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically. I had to learn how to release my fear. I had to learn how to refocus my outrage from judging and blaming the bullies and abusers to shifting the energy of that outrage into being just, fair, and accountable. As painful and sometimes terrifying as it often was, I had to learn how to say ‘no’, I will not enable and support that conduct. I will not stay in a relationship where I am not respected. I will move out of relationships where I am verbally abused. I simply deserve better.

For me, finding the balance between benevolence and naivete requires a constantly shifting awareness of the energy dynamics of any situation. I can then change those dynamics by changing myself. It always requires staying in integrity with my own values of compassion, non-violence, mutual respect, and accountability.

I’ve walked in the shoes of the other. I’ve experienced their suffering. How can I be anything but compassionate toward us all?

One Response to “Benevolence and Leadership. Valuable? Possible?”

  1. Gus Riley says:

    Hi Janet,

    good to hear from you ๐Ÿ˜‰ And what a fine question too!

    My first thoughts leant towards political leadership, – this was before I’d read your post – while the page was loading up – and that area I found difficult to even begin a meaningful dialogue with myself over. But on reading your post and the larger context of “leadership” – i.e relating to people and organizations etc, my whole thinking on the issue became something more immediate and readily answerable.

    In a word – an emphatic Yes: – as you know I work for an inner city charitable organization which has a very clearly defined goal, – which is as follows:

    “The aims of the Citizens Advice Bureau are to ensure that nobody suffers as a result of a lack of knowledge of their rights and responsibilities, and the power to enact them”

    I have a Line Manager called Leo, – and I have never worked, with or for, a person who epitomizes what this this whole discussion seems to about.

    You mentioned preferring the word – or value – compassion, rather then benevolence – I think that’s a pretty good way into the question.

    Empathy comes heavily into play too.

    Leo is my Line Manager, and the Team Leader for the bureau I work at on behalf of a very vulnerable and socially deprived community, who don’t know their rights and are all too often exploited in just about every conceivable way. By employers, landlords, the State itself, etc, etc, – in short they need a little help. But we have no resources to provide housing, employment, cash, food, protection, – we are in theory an “Advice” agency, – but if advice was all we gave, we wouldn’t achieve much at all, – if anything. We can and do advocate for clients, I don’t like that term in this context, – I prefer, “Persons” with all the dignity – and the responsibility, that Personhood carries.

    Leo officially starts work at 9.00am, but he’s in the office every morning at 7.30am, – he officially finishes at 5.opt, but he’s there until every clients needs have been dealt with as fully as we are capable of doing, and that can be pretty late some days – and sometimes he feels the burn. But he doesn’t show it, – a major part of his role as a “Team Leader” is to motivate – and protect – his staff, – both paid staff and the volunteer sector, – without which we simply couldn’t function at all, – the unpaid volunteers are the backbone of a outfit such as this one and many others like it.

    Leo has superb people skills, – not the textbook ones that many management consultancy groups claim to teach, – no, basic human ones, borne out of his own life experience and solid sense of justice, – he somehow manages to be equally available to both his staff and the clients and makes all concerned feel valued and visible – which is one hell of an art form in my opinion. There is no trace of ego in this guy, and as for masking his fatigue and frustration at the very real demands and limitations of his role, he could teach method acting to Brando. Is he being inauthentic by keeping a part of himself from public disclosure – no, he’s being professional, in fact over and above just being professional, – he has a deep understanding of human nature and group dynamics, and the service to the public benefits from his way of doing his job – or put in terms more relevant to this discussion, his whole orientation to living his life, one of service to others.

    Naive? This guy is so well informed regarding the relevant legislation for a given case and so intuitive regarding a clients often unspoken needs and difficulties, – those unquantifiable aspects that again, aren’t taught at college, – such as treating everybody with the tact, sensitivity and commitment which is so needed, else clients will simply walk away, – this type of client base are anything but naive too. That said, there has to be the firmness and boundaries present also, – to balance the whole show, and while doing it, keep his staff focused, and also being protected from the risk of emotional burn out etc takes a pretty exceptional level of benevolence (or better still, as you put it, Janet, compassion) and to be even one percent naive would lead to the whole thing fragmenting.

    Leo is a widower, who has raised his children alone, he lived in a hostel with his children some years ago, and has known poverty, and has first hand experience of the failings of the State to provide the rights it promises its citizens, – his vocation today is to try and prevent others from those experiences, – but its a team effort, it takes a whole community to support a given individual in need, and Leo is a master at bringing all the factors into harmony in a productive way.

    “A recent post on the Business Spirituality LinkedIn site asked: โ€œWhat difference can a benevolent leader bring to people and organizations? Is it possible to be benevolent without being naive?โ€

    All the difference in the world, – the difference from being just another well meaning (Gov funded) community project, to an effective and all inclusive dynamic force for the general good – but more importantly, as we don’t work with statistics, – to make a real and lasting difference in a given individuals life, helping them to regain a sense of self worth and independence again.

    My Line Managers deep decency, class and sense of justice makes a real difference not just to the community he serves, – a very uneasy community with all the mistrust that racially divided areas know about, yet able to create a safe space for clients from all ethnic backgrounds and political views to feel welcome and accommodated, – a naive leader would be chewed up inside a week. The guys level of personal intactness and his healthy sense of purpose, a purpose larger then his personal career horizon (each year he risks unemployment if the funding fails, as it did for a few weeks in January this year) make him a reason to continue in this line of work to people like myself who have the privilege of working alongside him, something I’ve never been able to say about my previous work history.

    I vote left of centre, and when we still had trade unions in the UK, I belonged to one, – but those days have gone, – today’s realities are very different, and today’s leadership in these tense and uncertain times is in the main very suspect, – I’m fortunate – as my community is to have a guy like Leo to lead by example.

    “Who’ll make the shoes for your feet, who’ll make the clothes that you wear, who’ll take the promise that you don’t have to keep – don’t look now it ain’t you or me . . .”

    Don’t Look Now – By John Fogerty

    To my Line Manager, Leo W, who must have heard that song in the sixties, and is keeping its spirit alive

    Gus Riley

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