My colleague Frank Kretzschmar and I recently hosted another of our leaders’ circles, where participants tell personal stories around a theme we select.
Regular readers of this column may remember articles I have written about earlier such events, including one titled Now more than ever: sustainable living with heart and mind and another, Holding on to optimism – we can set an example.
This latest one invited us to balance the positive and the negative, through our theme of Good world, bad world… and my way in it.
We asked those in our circle to share with us how they were dealing with the uncertainties and contradictions that emerge out of nowhere and confront us all, and to tell us whether they were able to remain positive in spite of the troubling global and local situations in which we live.
While those present were generally still doing fine, how were they touched by the desperate plight of so many people around them?
And to what extent were they going beyond empathy to compassionate action that was making a difference?
As always, before our meeting Frank and I searched for quotes to display around the room that could inspire our storytellers, and among those we chose for this theme was one from the Dalai Lama, who reassured us that “compassion and tolerance are not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength”, and another from Barack Obama, who commented that “empathy is a quality of character that can change the world”.
Those we invited were not selected at random. Defying diversity and inclusivity, they did not include rabble-rousing politicians or criminal gang leaders or tenderpreneurs, ones who would have sneered at the very thought of worrying about the plight of others.
Rather, we heard from men and women who were concerned about building a better and more sustainable world – this while at the same time being realistic about the “bad” around us.
Taken together, should we be more optimistic or pessimistic about the direction in which we are heading?
The negative consequences of climate change and Covid, of the war in Ukraine and the increase in authoritarianism, of inflation and inequality, can easily lead us to be overwhelmingly gloomy, to conclude that the bad is outpacing the good, we heard from some.
But we were also reminded that much good is with us too – however underplayed by the media, which always emphasises the bad and the ugly.
Life expectancy has been rising in many countries, while global poverty has reduced, and there have been breakthroughs in treating cancer and other health issues.
“It’s a matter of perspective,” one participant suggested, adding that “when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”.
Much of how they were actualising their compassion was taking place quietly, and not least among the peace-builders in the room – for here success often depends on behind-the-scenes engagement.
Everyone was very realistic, accepting that even “doing small things in small ways” is fine, while they “did the right things in the right way” to make the world a better place.
They acknowledged that we all do what we can within our generation, while also being aware of its consequences for future ones.
Here we heard a brilliant quote from Thomas Jefferson, who told his people that “we will be soldiers, so that our sons can be farmers, so that their sons can be artists.”
Not gender-sensitive by today’s standards, but point made.
The subject of values kept cropping up, for it is the promotion of healthy ones that enables good people to thrive rather than evil ones.
And while this issue hovered over us throughout the afternoon, our time limits did not allow it to be aired fully.
In their closing reflections, several appreciated how they had been greatly encouraged by hearing the positive stories of those around them, leading them to feel more cheerful and optimistic than when they had arrived.
Mike Eldon is chairman of management consultancy The DEPOT, co-founder of the Institute for Responsible Leadership and member of KEPSA Advisory Council. [email protected]