The Undefended Heart. Integrating compassion and courage through enactments of leadership

Lindy Maree Amos
Doctoral Dissertation,

This practice-led collaborative inquiry delves into the lived experience of self-nominated leaders from business, public and not-for-profit sectors. These co-inquirers participated in one-on-one interviews, small inquiry groups and Research Reflection Group (RRG) processes to generate inquiry data. Data was also generated utilising multimodal arts-based methods, supervision, and researcher journaling. Together, we inquired into what it means to lead with compassion and courage in organisations today. Focusing on how participants experience courage and compassion as enactments of leadership, this research conceives an originally developed framework that distils the essence of what the integration of compassion, courage and leadership look, feel and sound like in the workplace. Adopting a socioanalytic perspective, the work exemplifies unconscious dynamics present in the intersubjective space between leaders and the led, when compassion and courage intersect. As a piece of qualitative research, this exploration is offered to give voice to, and address, the emotional dimensions of organisational experience and, importantly, to understand why compassion and courage is oftentimes absent from organisations.

Hypotheses generated in this research suggest unconscious dynamics of dependency and idealisation reinforce a collective idealised image of leaders who are emotionally impervious and heroic in the face of suffering. This myth infers that leaders are non-humans at worst, superhuman at best and, because of this, are not adversely affected by the emotional labour inherent in their role-taking. A pervasive cultural distaste for demonstrating compassion in organisations entices leaders to collude with this myth. Responding by masking many of the unpalatable feelings and emotions they experience in turn perpetuates their felt sense of suffering. Taking these findings into account, I argue for a reappraisal of compassionate responses to organisational suffering. This reappraisal, I propose, takes courage and will deepen the quality of organisational relationships. I also argue for the re-humanisation of the leadership role through compassionate engagement with feelings of leadership vulnerability. I propose that a systemic willingness to grapple with the shadow sides of compassion and courage, supports the co-creation of emotionally contained relationships, which in turn contribute to the alleviation of organisational suffering.

Thesis overview

This thesis is arranged in three volumes:

Book 1: Design and sense-making

Chapters 1-4 describe the research beginnings, context, design and methods chosen to gather, interpret and make sense of the research data. I introduce my ontological and epistemological values and assumptions, and familiarise you with specific socioanalytic concepts that are foundational to my data interpretation and analysis.

Book 2: The psychic theatre: Compassionate and courageous leadership explored

Chapters 5-8 explores thematic data which emerged through the research interviews. Chapter 5 presents a conceptual framework unique to this thesis, which aims to capture the essence of both the constituent parts and the whole of participant lived experience of compassionate and courageous leadership. Chapters 6-8 explore themes which focus on the amplification and elucidation of unconscious phenomena and how these dynamics influence a leader’s capacity to think, feel and act compassionately and courageously.

Book 3: Wholehearted: Becoming compassionate and courageous leaders

Book 3 is presented through a series of reflections, two chapters and concluding remarks. Commencing with preliminary thoughts that the core of compassion is courage. Inquiry data is presented which points to the necessity of courageously and compassionately working through unpalatable emotions to become wholehearted. The essential presence and acceptance of vulnerability as a precursor and enabler of compassionate and courageous leadership is also proposed. Concluding remarks include recommendations for cultivating compassion as a valued organisational competency.


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