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On Building Compassionate Leaders

Thu, 05/25/2023 - 11:52

It’s about ‘awakening what is already there’

“We consider leadership to be an ability to motivate others to a shared common goal,” Evan Harrel said. Through their Center for Compassionate Leadership, Mr. Harrel and his wife, Laura Berland, offer programs for leaders in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors.

Abundant research has demonstrated that long-term practitioners of meditation can alter the structure and function of their brains. In a well-known 2002 study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the brainwave activity of Tibetan monks was measured as they meditated on compassion; the burst of electrical activity seen was such that the researchers thought their equipment was malfunctioning. This is understood to demonstrate neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections.

The Center for Compassionate Leadership, founded by Laura Berland and Evan Harrel of Montauk, taps into this notion with programs exploring “the principles and practices that will transform your leadership and your life,” according to its website.

“When it comes to leaders, it is about trying to awaken what is already there,” Mr. Harrel said. “This can be done by reshaping the brain through compassion meditation and other practices that operate on a neurological level.”

The center offers a weekslong program that has trained leaders in for-profit and nonprofit sectors in the fields of technology, media, finance, and politics. The program pledges an experience with a peer group of “change-makers from around the world.” Sometime after the summer season, Mr. Harrel and Ms. Berland, who are married, will offer a community training program for nonprofit organizations on the East End.

After a long career with traditional companies and startups in the tech and media worlds, “I started the Center for Compassionate Leadership from the perspective of appreciating the depth and power of contemplative wisdom,” Ms. Berland said. “That spans so many different traditions, including Indigenous traditions, because at the end of the day they all lead you down the same path, which is to be a wholehearted, well-wishing human, to take care of the people around you, to keep working for a better world.”

As her own meditation and yoga practices grew, and she “continued to learn more about these wisdom traditions and how to teach them, and started training around them, it was clear to me that these same practices and principles that are so supportive of people in their personal lives have great value — and even necessity in this day and age — in the organizational world.”

There is a persistent belief that compassion equates to weakness and softness, they said. “In fact,” Ms. Berland said, “it is just the opposite.” People in the workplace, Mr. Harrel said, “want clarity, equity, purpose, and direction, and they want to be treated with respect, listened to, and treated as a fellow human being. All of those are elements of a compassionate leader. There is no tradeoff between leading compassionately and having high standards and expectations.”

Compassion is innate, Mr. Harrel said: Children as young as 2 exhibit awareness of others’ suffering and a desire to alleviate it. “There is emerging evidence that you can impact the genetic expression. We can, through compassion practices and meditations, impact not only on a neurological level but on the cellular level.”

More than 400 participants from 42 different countries have participâted in the center’s training, not all of them from the executive or managerial level, they said. “We consider leadership to be an ability to motivate others to a shared common goal,” Mr. Harrel said. “So leadership, if you consider it, is not based on hierarchical structure. Leaders emerge everywhere.” A range of people from graduate students to C-suite executives have received the center’s training, Ms. Berland said. They are seeing, among alumni, “the power of these individuals to influence the creation of compassionate organizations and culture. It can be from the top down, it can be from the middle out, and it can be from the bottom up.”

Starting early in the Covid-19 pandemic, they have conducted eight online training programs, mostly eight weeks long. “Bringing the work into an in-person retreat format is important to us,” Ms. Berland said, “because there’s only so much connectional energy one can summon through Zoom.” Nonetheless, “groups we’ve done through Zoom have exceeded our expectations in terms of creating a sense of connection and belonging, which is a core element of what the work is about.”

The couple recently returned from London, where they hosted an immersive program for 35 leaders from multiple countries. “The power of each individual to inspire everyone with their work, with their intention, from their heart — this is a tall order that people take on,” Ms. Berland said. “It’s a difficult path when you can appreciate the traditional way business was done, and the values most businesses still operate under. The work environment is extremely harsh, and thank goodness, we’re starting to talk about mental health. There’s a lot more that can help create safety, connection, and belonging as people learn how to work with compassion from the inside out.”

The program does not advocate a particular type of meditation or other practice, she said. Rather, “we expose participants to a full range of opportunities for them to find their own way.”

“Compassion itself is a relational practice,” Mr. Harrel said. “What we see very clearly is that the sense of community that people get as they go through our program together is incredibly empowering. We would love to do it in a location where people are reasonably close to each other so that energy can be more sustained.”

The program on the South Fork, they said, is likely to be a hybrid of in-person retreats to open and close with four to six online training sessions in between. It is designed to strengthen the East End’s nonprofit ecosystem as part of a three-pronged, multiyear initiative of Sheri Sandler, who lives in Amagansett, on behalf of the Reba Sandler Foundation.

“We’ve been teaching all over the world,” Ms. Berland said. “We’d really love to bring these practices and principles to bear in the local community that we love so much.”



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