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Education Opinion

Leadership, Learning, and Compassion: The Indispensables of Education

By Jill Berkowicz and Ann Myers — July 15, 2014 5 min read

We welcome guest blogger Chris Kukk, Ph.D. Professor of Political Science at Western Connecticut State University, a Fulbright Scholar, founding Director of the Center for Compassion, Creativity and Innovation.

Leadership and learning,” according to President John F. Kennedy, “are indispensable to each other.” President Kennedy, however, never said those words. They were part of a speech about American strength he intended to give in Dallas on November 22, 1963--a speech he never delivered.

The remainder of President Kennedy’s planned remarks in Dallas focused upon explaining that American strength comes in many forms, not just from the military. As the initiator of the Peace Corps, for example, he recognized the strength of compassion on both national and international levels. Compassion is defined as a holistic (360 degree) understanding of a problem or suffering of another with a commitment to act for solving the problem or alleviating the suffering. The indispensability of learning and leadership lies at the center of compassion.

Compassion is also indispensable for effective leadership and learning, especially in the field of education. The heads of educational institutions who use compassion as a cornerstone of their leadership focus on listening so that they can learn-to-understand what actions they must take to resolve issues; it is literally and figuratively the head working with the heart. Compassionate leadership provides a source of strength for the intellectual development and social-emotional learning of students and teachers.

Compassionate leaders empower their teachers and students by listening-to-understand rather than listening-to-reply when issues and problems arise. When leaders listen-to-understand, the people in their organizations feel less like part of a problem and more like part of the solution. In other words, compassionate leaders find it easy to enlist teachers and students when searching for and implementing solutions to problems because they lead by being “other-focused.” Adam Grant, in his book about success--Give and Take--demonstrates that most successful people (he calls “givers” as opposed to “takers” and “matchers”) “are other-focused, paying more attention to what other people need from them.” Grant highlights two particular skills of his model giver--Adam Rifkin--by stating that “His secret was deceptively simple: he asked thoughtful questions and listened with remarkable patience.” Who doesn’t want to follow a leader who asks thoughtful questions and listens with remarkable patience? Compassion strengthens leadership and learning because it fosters strong listening skills.

Leaders are the models in which their schools and organizations tend to mirror, and compassionate role models are needed now more than ever. “Almost 80 percent of students,” according to a recent study by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, “ranked achievement or happiness over caring for others.” The authors of the report highlight a “rhetoric/reality gap"--a mismatch between what parents and teachers say is important and what our children and students see us do--as the “root” cause of the student rankings. Do we really want a society of self-centered achievers? The idea that there has to be a choice between achievement and caring for others is a false dilemma; we can all strive to be compassionate achievers.

Schools with compassionate leaders increase their students’ potential for academic success. Compassionate learning environments, for example, lower a student’s cortisol levels (decreasing stress levels), which increases his or her ability to learn. In Brain Rules, John Medina writes that “chronic stress hurts our ability to learn...Specifically, stress hurts declarative memory (things you can declare) and executive function (the type of thinking that involves problem-solving). Those, of course, are the skills needed to excel in school and business.” Increasing learning ability correlates with higher educational results. With approximately a quarter of high-school graduates unable to even pass the Armed Forces Qualification Test (an exam that measures basic math and reading abilities), America needs an approach to education that improves its learning outcomes; compassionate schools, ironically, offer one path for improvement. Overall, according to a recent report by the Department of Defense, over two-thirds of America’s 17-24 year old citizens do not qualify to serve their country “because of physical, behavioral or educational shortcomings.” The following unspoken words of President Kennedy’s Dallas speech echoed in my head: “This link between leadership and learning is not only essential at the community level. It is even more indispensable in world affairs.

President Kennedy planned on making the argument that the indispensability between leadership and learning is the driving force “for continued progress and prosperity.” His words need to be delivered now because (1) America’s educational progress over the last decade has, at best, been ‘flatlined’ when measured by the PISA scores (Program for International Student Assessment) and (2) our economic prosperity is threatened by a shrinking middle class. The two are inextricably intertwined. I’m calling for compassion to be at the center of leadership in learning because adding compassion to President Kennedy’s “indispensability” would strengthen America’s progress and prosperity. A compassion-based education is indispensable to the success of our students, teachers and country. “We believe,” in the words of Mark Twain (in a speech Twain did get the chance to deliver on November 23, 1900), “that out of the public schools grows the greatness of a nation.

Adam Grant, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (New York: Penguin Group Inc., 2013).
Jessica Lahey, “Why Kids Care More About Achievement than Helping Others,” The Atlantic (June 2014), accessed at //
John Medina, Brain Rules (Seattle, WA: Pear Press, 2008).
Miriam Jordan, “Uncle Sam Wants You--Unless You’re 71% of Youths,” The Wall Street Journal (June 28-29, 2014): A1 & A5.
Rick Weissbound, Stephanie Jones, Trisha Ross Anderson, Jennifer Kahn and Mark Russell, “The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults are Sending about Values,” Making Caring Common Project (Cambridge, MA: The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2014).

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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