The worldwide pandemic has shown us the best of humanity. All over the world, people are cheering for healthcare workers as they change shifts. Neighbors are delivering groceries to their high-risk neighbors. Others donate blood to benefit people they’ll likely never meet. Businesses have had to quickly get creative and resourceful so they could best serve their customers and support their team members as we all entered into this new normal.
All of this has a common theme—genuine care. It also demonstrates why now, more than ever, we must focus on how we show up every day as leaders.
One person who understands this better than most is Dr. Ha Vinh Tho—the former Director of the Gross National Happiness Centre in Bhutan and founder of the ELI: The Eurasian Learning Institute for Happiness and Wellbeing. As a Ph.D. holder from Geneva University and a Buddhist teacher, he offers a unique perspective on creating holistically healthier cultures at work and in society as a whole.
Dr. Tho believes that encouraging a culture of happiness and compassion goes beyond personal gratification. He also asserts its benefits to our communities, our companies, and our economies. As business leaders whose choices impact others, Dr. Tho knows that we have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to play a role in creating a more positive society.
A New Way to Define Success
Before launching ELI as his own nonprofit foundation, Dr. Tho was the Director of the Gross National Happiness Centre in the Kingdom of Bhutan, a small country located between Tibet and India. Gross National Happiness, or GNH, is a system first introduced by the Bhutanese government that measures its country’s success not only by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) but also by the wellbeing of its citizens.
Though economic health is undoubtedly important, Bhutan believed it much too narrow a measure to determine any nation’s overall prosperity. If a country was financially wealthy but had a population of unhappy citizens, could it really consider itself successful?
The leaders of Bhutan didn’t think so. Instead, they designed a different way to measure their nation’s progress.
“What we count counts,” says Dr. Tho. “We need to look at the development of a society or a business not purely from a perspective of financial transactions, but from a holistic perspective.”
That’s exactly what the GNH does. It encourages nations to consider nine different factors regarding their citizens’ wellbeing. This includes living standards, community vitality, psychological well being, and education—aspects that affect individuals every day but can be forgotten in GDP-centric societies.
However, for those nine factors to be strong, the economy must be strong as well and GNH does not overlook the significance of GDP. Instead, Dr. Tho says that the GNH can help governments and their citizens better understand that while financial growth is essential, it is just one piece of the puzzle.
Business Leaders Can Change Society for the Better
Dr. Tho believes that business leaders, owners, and entrepreneurs can play a pivotal role in moving the needle towards a happier society. For one, “it is easier to transform the economic system than the political system,” he says.
Politicians or those in government are often trapped in a complex system. It can prevent even the most well-intentioned people from making the differences they’d personally love to see.
In contrast, “an entrepreneur has a certain freedom,” says Dr. Tho. “If a leader really wants to change something, they can do it.” While they may have a board or shareholders to contend with, it’s significantly easier than working within a government’s rigid structures.
He also thinks that key leadership traits can play a major role. “Most entrepreneurs want to make a positive contribution,” Dr. Tho says. “They have an impulse to bring something to society.” Even if financial gains are central to their pursuits, there is typically also a desire to benefit others.
“Many business people that I’ve worked with—when they see a chance to transform their company in a way that can be a source for good—they are more than happy to do it,” says Dr. Tho. “And all of their employees are very happy about it. They become much more engaged.
“If you work for a paycheck, that may be better than nothing. But if on top of that paycheck you feel like you are contributing to something positive, then the engagement is much stronger.”
As a business leader myself, I know that happy, engaged team members are more productive and excited to make a difference. It’s easy to see how that heightened enthusiasm leads to a healthier business. Healthier businesses bring in greater profits, and profits help to support employee happiness.
By ensuring that our team members are happy, we’re well on our way to building a more financially and emotionally successful society.
Become a More Compassionate Leader
For some, compassion comes naturally. But for many others, it takes some practice. As an expert on leading with genuine care, Dr. Tho has coached many C-Level leaders—like Biti’s CEO Cindy Vuu and clothing designer Eileen Fisher—on becoming more compassionate, people-first leaders. Here is some of his inspiring advice:
Make Real Connections
How often do you consider the totality of your employees’ lives? Especially for leaders in large organizations, this can be a major obstacle when trying to boost your compassion and empathy.
That is why Dr. Tho suggests striving to create real connections with every team member no matter their role. Talk about more than just work. Discover what else matters within their lives. “Compassionate leadership begins with our ability to create a deep connection with others. You can only have compassion with beings—not with things,” he says. “Therefore, if you want to develop compassion…you have to develop a connection.
“Compassion is dependent on…not seeing the other person as an object or someone useful just for my own purposes,” Dr. Tho continues. “Acknowledge that the other person’s reality, wellbeing, and quest for happiness is just as legitimate as your own.”
Listen with Empathy and Intention
Another key to making real connections with others involves listening—something that most people probably think they are great at, but few are.
Instead, many of us engage in what Dr. Tho calls superficial listening or listening to the other person just enough to respond or argue in a way that ultimately benefits you. “It’s not truly listening,” says Dr. Tho. “You’re not really interested in what the other person is saying.”
There is also factual listening, which he considers a step up from superficial. You are at least hearing what the other person is saying, but essentially are absorbing their words more like notes or bullet points.
Then there is the third type—empathic or compassionate listening. “You’re listening not only to what is said but also what is not said,” says Dr. Tho. “What is the emotional quality? What is the intention? It’s not necessarily formulated in words, but actually gives the deeper meaning to what is said.”
So, how can we work on listening more compassionately? Dr. Tho suggests regularly checking in with yourself while in a conversation. Are you fully listening to what the other person is saying, nuances and all? Or are you trying to formulate a rebuttal, response, or judgment?
Compassionate listening is an ongoing practice. It may take some time to feel like you’ve made serious progress, but it’ll be worth it when you do.
What Are You Offering to Others?
Compassionate leadership is a lifelong process that can be difficult to navigate. If it feels like you have been struggling, or looking for a place to start, remember this:
“We can always ask ourselves, ‘Is what I’m doing contributing to bringing more happiness and wellbeing to all—or is it degrading happiness and wellbeing?’” says Dr. Tho. “If we all have this North Star, then it’s a simple way to have a compass to guide our actions.”
So, where will your compass guide you and your business?
The conversation with Dr. Ha Vinh Tho continues on the Leading with Genuine Care podcast! Learn about building happy lives and businesses, the advantages of Gross National Happiness, what makes Dr. Tho happy, and so much more here.
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