Blog: Learning Curve

Distinguishing Compassion from Sympathy and Empathy

Being of service often requires a deep connection to human experiences. Ever notice how we live with the words that describe such experiences? Of late, I’ve observed words such as sympathy, empathy, or compassion employed to describe political leaders in certain situations. Usually, terms are bandied about by commentators or casual observers, so I let them pass.

But as professionals in the human experience, I find it critical for coaches, counselors, educators, and even consultants to more critically observe what each situation requires. Do we see a need to show sorrow, to relate to another’s experience, or to reduce suffering?

To explore this territory, I will begin with sympathy, then explore empathy, and finally distinguish compassion from both. Both sympathy and empathy have roots in the Greek word pathos, which means “suffering, feeling.”

Pity and Sympathy

To develop sympathy, first, let’s explore pity, which can often be confused for sympathy.

Pity is a feeling of sadness or commiseration for someone who is either worse off than you or is worse off than some normative standard, which is why you can pity yourself.

Very few people want to be pitied, yet at times we do just that—or we pity ourselves. When you listen to someone’s suffering and respond with “poor you,” you have just pitied them.

Sympathy entered the English language in the mid-1500s and became used to convey feelings of regret or sorrow for someone else who is experiencing hardship. We often see this in messages of support and sorrow for others in a time of need (e.g., “my sympathies”). You feel bad for them and express sorrow, but you can’t personally relate.

The World of Empathy

Introduced in the late 1800s, the word empathy has come to refer to the capacity to imagine oneself in a situation with another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person. This reflects either an emotional or cognitive empathy, described as follows.

Emotional empathy consists of three separate components. To quote Sara D. Hodges and Michael D. Myers from the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology:

  • “The first [component] is feeling the same emotion as another person . . .
  • The second component, personal distress, refers to feelings of distress in response to perceiving another’s plight . . .
  • The third emotional component, feeling with another person, is the one most frequently associated with the study of empathy in psychology.”

Cognitive empathy is also known as “empathic accuracy.” Hodges and Myers discuss it as “having more complete and accurate knowledge about the contents of another person’s mind, including how the person feels.”

Cognitive empathy is more like a skill that is developed to better understand another’s perspective, such as their attitudes, worldview, or ideas. We have found a strong correlation between listening skills and the ability to access this form of empathy.

Unlike sympathy, empathy isn’t just used for unpleasant feelings. You can empathize with someone’s happiness, too.

This leads us to compassion.


When researching this blog, I found compassion often used to describe pity, sympathy, and even both types of empathy. This reveals our confusion about compassion, which can be traced to an unclear definition.

Fundamentally, compassion is composed of com (together with) and passion (to suffer).

Tapping into 2,600 years of Buddhist wisdom, we can deepen our understanding of the practice of compassion —“to suffer with”— from a more common psychological view that tends to sound much like empathy and sympathy.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh views compassion as “the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows.” According to Hanh, “we [must] practice mindfulness, deep listening, and deep looking” to develop compassion.

Thus, we associate compassion with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object, in the self or in others.

With sympathy, I feel for your hardship; with empathy, I share your emotions. With compassion, I can share your suffering and elevate it into a universal “common humanity” and transcending experience.

The relationship to suffering begins with understanding the truth—or true nature—of one’s own suffering or the suffering of another. This requires three elements: self-compassion, common humanity, and mindfulness.

1 – Self-compassion

If we are unable to be with our own suffering, we cannot be with another’s. This requires an awareness that discerns between being judgmental and being kind. Self-compassion invites us to be gracious, warm, and caring toward ourselves when we fail, suffer, or become disappointed.

The practice begins with becoming aware of our own suffering, expectations, and imperfections without judging them as negative thoughts about ourselves.

Author and researcher Kristen Neff, Ph.D. Neff suggests that “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings.”

Neff has also distinguished Self-Compassion from Self-pity, Self-indulgent and Self-esteem, and she offers a special piece on Why Women Need Fierce Self-Compassion.

2 – Common Humanity

Kristen Neff beautifully describes this notion of common humanity, distinguishing it from self-pity.

“While self-pity says ‘poor me,’ self-compassion recognizes suffering is part of the shared human experience. The pain I feel in difficult times is the same pain that you feel in difficult times. The triggers are different, the circumstances are different, the degree of pain is different, but the basic experience is the same.”

3 – Mindfulness

Understanding common humanity and practicing self-compassion requires our willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity with mindful awareness.

Mindfulness is a non-reactive awareness that cultivates a receptive mind to observe thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. This openness also loosens the grip that thoughts have on us and our ability to reify those thoughts. See our blog on Mental Hygiene.


Idiot Compassion.

Often, the compassionate thing to do may not seem empathetic and may lack sympathy. Additionally, honesty without compassion can be cruelty. The issue is whether we are willing to view the source of suffering or not. If we bypass this examination, we lean toward “idiot compassion,” a term I first encountered through the writings of Tibetan Buddhist and author, Pema Chodron.

Idiot compassion refers to enabling—i.e., the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering.

Chodron exposes the danger in this:

“instead of offering a friend medicine, bitter though it may be when ingested, you feed them more poison—at the very least, you don’t take it away from them. This, she says, is not compassion at all. It’s selfishness, as you’re more concerned with your own feelings than attending to your friend’s actual needs.”

This phenomenon is due to our inability to experience our own suffering, which also induces us to avoid the suffering of others. We commit a compassion bypass by acting nice, enabling deeds, or simply overlooking items that require our attention. In this sense, we actually increase suffering rather than relieving it.

Philosopher Ken Wilber states this well:

“Real compassion includes wisdom and so it makes judgments of care and concern; it says some things are good, and some things are bad, and I will choose to act only on those things that are informed by wisdom and care.”

Compassion Fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is defined as “the indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of those who are suffering, experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals” (accumulative effect of absorbing trauma or suffering).

Much of this definition relies on a faulty understanding of compassion as an outward phenomenon.

“Compassion fatigue” speaks to a dimension of burnout; I see this more akin to “empathy fatigue.” Without the wisdom required in compassion, empathy and open-hearted care often find us relating to others’ emotions without sufficient boundaries. We become overwhelmed, merge the self with others, or become swept up in the needs of others.

Recall the three elements of compassion from above:  self-compassion, common humanity, and mindfulness. In this regard, we are also adding something else—practice. Compassion is more than a definition or description of a concept. These three interdependent parts must act as a system of practices to ensure that compassion has a built-in self-regulation. If we are practicing compassion, not idiot compassion, then we are first practicing self-compassion.

The term compassion fatigue eliminates the wisdom necessary for compassion. It reduces compassion to a feeling (not a condition with practice) and dismisses the fundamental aspect of self-compassion, which is necessary to understand and be with our own suffering.

In Sum: Compassion is a Practice

As professionals, we offer interventions to support others. Consider each situation you encounter and the care you might render. Then, observe the need and discern the understanding of those involved.

Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., is the Dalai Lama’s principal English translator and author of the course Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT). Jinpa posits that compassion is a four-step process, which I’ve paraphrased slightly:

  • Awareness of the true nature of suffering.
  • Sensitive concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering.
  • A wish to see that suffering relieved.
  • Wise responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering.

Compassion is a practice that involves Eastern wisdom and includes Western notions of feelings, thoughts, and emotions. We transcend suffering with practice to realize our common humanity. With practice, we learn to tend to our own suffering to relieve the suffering of others.

Additional blog posts on this topic: Mental Hygiene: The Overlooked Capacity, Part 1, and Mindfulness Minus Wisdom: Moving to Materialism; and, the workbook, The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff and Chris Germer

tony-zampella-headshot Tony Zampella is the learning specialist at Zampella Group, which serves Learning & Development Professionals. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of learning programs and contemplative practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His studies include the work of Martin Heidegger and ontological inquiry, Ken Wilber, and Integral theory, and Zen Buddhism and contemplative practices.


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The Growth of Coaching Spawns Critical Differences

When working with coaches and executives, I am often asked about differences in types of coaching, such as life coaching, executive coaching, and leadership development. Are these just branding gimmicks to charge higher fees? Do these require different training? How do I know which one I need?

Until recently, the field of coaching didn’t vary too much. What was clear was that coaching operated outside the conventional medical model, which views the client as an ill patient with a diagnosis in need of treatment or symptom relief.

While coaching acknowledged some serious mental illnesses that benefit from clinical psychology or skillful psychotherapy, it offered relief for others. It worked with many people that were lumped together, labeled, and treated for what were really “problems in living”—situations or circumstances that did not need a diagnosis or assume a pathology.

This was a healthy turn that informed the revolution of coaching, and so, life coaching emerged.

The history and evolution of coaching in the last two decades—as a method, product, and service—has mirrored the evolution of change and has produced different roles and expectations.

A Brief History…

According to coaching historian Vikki Brock, “in the 1990s when coaching gained popularity and media attention, we [saw] the rise of training programs and professional associations serving the coaching community.”

Much of Brock’s research speaks to three waves of coaching: prior to 1995, from 1995 to 2010, and after 2010. As she says:

coach training schools grew from 2 in 1990 to 8 in 1995, to 164 in 2004. Professional coach associations grew from 0 in 1990 to 12 in 2004, with annual coaching conferences growing from 0 to 16 by 2003. The whole concept of coaching culture came into being about that time and by 2004 was a term commonly used in business.

Brock’s view of this evolution is based on the consolidation of the market, increased competition, dissemination by the mainstream media, and the emergence of schools, associations, and standards.

I find her three waves to coincide with shifts in how the coaching field focused its efforts and impact. Each focus seemed to trail Brock’s waves by about five years.

  1. Life coaching, in the late 1980s and 1990s, peaking at about 2000 (following Brock’s first wave). It focused primarily on the methodology for increasing results in several domains of human life.
  2. Performance coaching emerged around 2000, marking Brock’s second wave. It focused primarily on productivity; much of this framed as business or executive coaching.
  3. Leadership development (or leadership coaching) emerged in 2015 to deal with disruptive change. At this point, the primary reason that organizations or businesses hired a coach was to cultivate the mindset of a leader to distribute leadership and develop a leadership culture throughout an organization.

As we close 2018, this shift will continue. Research from the International Coaching Federation (ICF) has revealed this trend (see graph below and “Specialty” table later in the blog).

Life Coaching

  • Focus: Implement a healthy design for various domains of life.
  • Training: Coaching model and method.
  • Expectation: Increase competency in a specific domain of life.

Life Coaching applied the powerful model and methodology to a domain of life, such as career, wellness, relationship, small business, etc. Instead of learning a body of concepts via formal education, coaches train in and practice a body of distinctions, delivered to expand perceptions and open possibilities for new action.

According to Fernando Flores, distinctions are not names of objects or definitions of terms. “They distinguish something or make it stand out from everything else and to bring it to our attention.” These subtleties of language, when internalized, cause a shift in a belief, behavior, value or attitude.

In this view, a coach adopts the model and learns the methodology to hold clients accountable to realizing different views and results for that domain of life.

Unlike the medical model or other problem-solving interventions, life coaching began with the premise that people have the answers and that the coach’s role is to help them overcome internal resistances and interferences. Life coaching sought to place inquiries about personal growth into a context of healthy life design, rather than a problem-solving context that diagnosed pathologies. It offered an option for those who had nowhere to turn but therapists, seminars, or self-help books.

As a craft or profession, coaching also required that coaches become coachable—that they operate from this model, not just issue concepts, knowledge, or advice. This required adopting a view that focused on the future and implementing practices and personal mastery that deepened listening, and surfaced critical questions to develop a high level of commitment, action, and accountability.

In short, coaches are trained to embody the coaching model and methodology.

Executive Coaching

  • Focus: Goal-oriented, skills-based approach to enhance performance.
  • Training: Coaching model and method, plus business knowledge, skillsets, and competencies as well as training in assessment tools.
  • Expectation: Integrate skills or expand competencies to increase performance.

After the turn of the century, coaching intersected with the central professional demands: to enhance performance in the face of change. The model and methodology supported more than strategies for life design—they supported peak performance. Performance coaching emerged to help coaches identify and develop clients’ strengths.

Through deep listening, challenging questions, critical feedback, and guidance, performance coaches revealed hidden potential and then worked with clients on practices to sustain it.

Also called business or performance coaching, the term executive coaching soon emerged to help senior managers, leaders, and directors learn to expand skills and competencies that improved their performance.

Developed in 1979, the GROW Model (Goal, Reality, Options, Will, or Wrap-up or Way forward) became one of the most influential methods for executive and performance coaching to engage problem-solving and goal-setting. The model was first published in Coaching for Performance by John Whitmore in 1992.

Another important difference with executive coaching required additional knowledge, and training in assessments, such as 360-degree surveys and personality typologies as well as data analysis and business systems.

Coaches also became proficient in competencies that manifested in roles (as listed below). The coach dances between these roles and additional knowledge competencies and as applied in a business or organizational context.

Leadership Development

  • Focus: Increase capacity to cope with the business and the human impact of change.
  • Training: Coaching model and method, plus additional multi-disciplinary approach to expand mindsets, specifically for leadership and leading change.
  • Expectation: Develop awareness and practices to cultivate or transform the conditions for leadership and learning beyond current perceptions.

Newer to the field of coaching, leadership development had emerged by 2015 as a primary method to cope with change, especially for those responsible for leading an organization (C-Suite) and cultivating leadership in others.

Essentially, the nature of change today—its pace, uncertainty, and complexity—has focused development efforts and resources on creating the conditions for leadership.

Based on my research and experience, this level of coaching moves beyond a focus on assessments, skillsets and competencies and takes responsibility for developing a mindset—that of a leader.

This level of coaching involves more education from a multi-disciplinary approach (see below under “Leadership Development”) to increase self-awareness and deepen listening.

Leadership development balances “coaching” with a focus on “development.” It includes some of the direction offered by life coaching, some of the roles offered by executive coaching with an emphasis on increasing capacity to cope with the human facets and impact of change.

Fundamentally, however, leadership coaching and development deal with all the human aspects of disruptive change, unpredictable future, and learning to learn (often involving a lot of unlearning). It supports leaders in the face of unpredictable change, increased complexity, and the ambiguity and uncertainty experienced by the self.

Coaching Executives and Leaders

Emerging research finds leadership development moving inward away from content, such as skills and knowledge, and toward context, such as self-awareness, listening, and empathy.

The assessment company Korn Ferry has engaged some research on the differences between mid-level-manager coaching, executive coaching, and leadership development coaching.

They define “leadership as driving innovation and adaptation at relentless speeds [to] sustain a core enduring vision to keep their organizations focused.”

What’s implied in their definition is the need to cultivate learning (innovation) and cope with change and complexity (adaptation at relentless speeds). This requires creating a context from a deeper level of personal mastery.

In a 2015 survey, Korn Ferry identified top competencies for mid-level managers, executives (vice-presidents and directors), and leadership (C-Suite), as follows.

For mid-level managers that require executive coaching: 1) interpersonal relationships, listening skills, and empathy; 2) influence; 3) communication skills; 4) self-awareness; and 5) delegation and empowerment.

For Executives that require a mix of leadership development and executive coaching: 1) interpersonal relationships, listening skills, and empathy; 2) influence; 3) self-awareness; 4) communication skills; and 5) motivation and engagement.

For Leaders (C-Suite) that require leadership development: 1) self-awareness; 2) interpersonal relationships, listening skills, and empathy; 3) influence; 4) leading during times of change; and 5) communication skills.

One obvious trend is that the competency of self-awareness increases in importance as one expands their level of responsibility in an organization. This is followed by and informs one’s listening, empathy, and influence.

The Executive Coach: Six Roles

The following core coaching competencies by the Association for Coaching illustrate some key areas of knowledge, skills, and practices for executive coaching. Most of these involve horizontal development: improving skills or clarifying roles as distinguished by Robert Dilts in a speech at the 2003 ICF European Conference in Italy.

I’ve revised these six roles to match today’s conditions:

  1. Performance. Through enhancing practice, improving process, or expanding perspective, coaches support someone to learn in order to improve their performance. This often entails supporting, showing, giving feedback, encouraging, and distinguishing new perspectives or practices.
  2. Guiding and Supporting. This is the process of directing another person along their path. Coaches provide a supportive environment from which to question perceptions and assumptions without unnecessary distractions or interferences from the outside.
  3. Teaching. This relates to supporting people to expand capabilities with an emphasis on learning. It focuses on expanding the capacity for learning by questioning mental models and assumptions.
  4. Mentoring. A teacher instructs while a coach provides specific feedback to help a person learn or grow. Mentors, on the other hand, guide us to discover our own unconscious competencies and strengthen beliefs and values, often by example.
  5. Sponsorship or Developing Potential. This involves creating a context in which others can act, grow, and excel. It supports constructing identity and core values and awakening potential within others. It involves the commitment to the unfolding of something that is already within a person or group that has not yet manifested to its fullest capacity.
  6. Awakening. This extends beyond coaching, teaching, mentoring, and sponsorship to include the levels of vision, mission, and purpose. The catalyst here connects people with their own missions and visions, and thus, the coach needs to know his/her own vision, mission, and purpose.
coaching types table

Click to Enlarge

The Leadership Development Coach: Six Disciplines

The biggest difference between executive coaching and leadership development (which can be part of executive coaching) is the shift from roles that build skill-sets to disciplines that develop mindsets. This difference supports the shift from developing skillsets or focusing on content to expanding mindsets or awareness of context.

Increasing leadership capacity (mindsets) or vertical development entails tapping into a mix of disciplines. This often requires the coach to be knowledgeable about business systems, the nature of the human condition, and the function of change in the business and its impact on humans.

These are some of the disciplines and foci at this level of coaching:

  1. Psychological Understanding. Focus on emotional intelligence to expand trust and self-awareness that cultivates and demonstrates empathy.
  2. Communications Understanding. Focus on deep listening to give and receive feedback that enhances collaboration.
  3. Business Management. Focus on strategic thinking to develop the shared vision that guides change.
  4. Learning Principles. Focus on developing potential and appreciative inquiry to expand possibility and foster team learning.
  5. Systems Thinking. Focus on observations, insights, and inquiries to question and construct perspectives, worldviews, and mental models.
  6. Personal Mastery. Focus on self-discovery and contemplative practices to cultivate intentional practice and generate commitment in any situation.

Which Way Forward?

Retaining a coach today may be one of the most important single investments in one’s career. Taking the time to clearly distinguish your needs offers a good first step.

If your issues involve a transition in life or a new design for living that entails new strategies or direction, a life coach may offer great support.

If you’re looking to improve content or learning skills—optimizing skills or competencies, increasing performance in an area of responsibility or management, managing complexity, or creating new work strategies—then an executive coach may fit your needs best.

If your work involves creating or altering contexts—any aspect of leading change through uncertainty or ambiguity, cultivating learning cultures or team learning, expanding perceptions, or letting go of outmoded systems, views, or assumptions—then you may find a leadership development coach to be the most effective.

This article complements an earlier White Paper: What is Coaching? Why Retain a Coach? which distinguishes coaching from other human intervention professions. 

tony-zampella-headshot Tony Zampella is the learning specialist at Zampella Group, which serves Learning & Development Professionals. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of learning programs and contemplative practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His studies include the work of Martin Heidegger and ontological inquiry, Ken Wilber, and Integral theory, and Zen Buddhism and contemplative practices.


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Becoming the Leader of a Learning Culture, part 2

“Why do we confront learning opportunities with fear rather than wonder?”

“Why do we derive our self‐esteem from knowing as opposed to learning?”

“Why do we criticize others before we even understand them?”

It’s been 25 years since these questions opened the seminal paper Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations by Peter Senge and Fred Kofman.

These questions persist today, as addressed in my last blog. I explored ideas by the authors and developed a framework that identified and examined some of the thinking and areas of focus for developing a learning organization.

In that blog, we discussed five disciplines for creating a learning organization: personal mastery, mental models, building a shared vision, team learning, and systems thinking. Additionally, we explored ways to dissolve three frozen thinking patterns: reactiveness, competitiveness, and fragmentation.

In sum, we noted the dimensions of a learning culture that require a different kind of leadership, beyond a single leader—leadership as a cultural norm. In a learning organization, leadership is expected from everyone and cultivated by the organizational leaders.

Commitment is Key

Before cultivating leadership can occur, a learning community or culture must begin with commitment. Recall the name of the authors’ paper. Commitment, in this case, is not an obligation, burden, or form of compliance. It is more than the time or finances invested, and it transcends goals, achievements, or sentimental compliments.

We often view commitment as something external or outside of us—something we do or accomplish. Our view of commitment requires nothing less than a new paradigm.

Buddhism’s view of commitment is a vow to embrace, as a way of life, who we are, how we live, how we show up. Commitment empowers us to act in the face of our fears and justifications to face whatever we are experiencing, now, in the moment.

In the Buddhist view, a commitment to something larger than satisfying our desires can provide us with a sense of purpose that can be very comforting and calming and can guide us.

Why Commitment?

The inquiry into learning initiates a profound and messy inquiry into the nature of being human in an organizational context. Learning is fraught with issues of fear and need, wrapped up with our identity. Much of this involves the way learning confronts knowing: what we know, who we know ourselves to be, and the openness required to be a beginner and to say, “I don’t know.”

The three hardest words for leaders to utter are “I don’t know.” Yet, until we can become comfortable with not knowing, we cannot fully discover, inquire into, or embrace the uncertainty that marks this time in our organizational lives.

Until leaders become more comfortable with not knowing, learning will occur as a threat. This is where cultivating commitment is a fundamental first step to establish a context bigger than our personality, or identity.

Commitment grounds the journey of becoming a learning community. It supports the leadership to 1) generate a shared commitment within the organization and 2) to tap the individual commitment of all participants.

Commitment provides a larger context to create the possibility of learning, offering a way to dissolve the fragmentation, reactiveness, and competitiveness (see last blog) that tend to impede learning.

Developing Commitment

I offer a three-dimensional view of commitment that supports what’s possible in a learning culture, community, or organization.

  1. A personal commitment can supplant any fear of learning or change or personal needs and desires, which can involve how we look or our need to impress, perform well, or do the right thing. In this sense, commitment taps into our character, which is more timeless and value-based than timely and style-based.
  2. A shared commitment offers participants membership in an organization or culture that provides a larger perspective to guide our individual concerns. In this sense, commitment is a matter of direction, linked to a purpose and a compelling future that we are co-creating together.
  3. A commitment to change is described by the authors as a commitment “to changes needed in the larger world and to seeing our organizations as vehicles for bringing about such changes.” In this sense, commitment forms a crucible for change, stemming from a shared understanding that reflects a willingness to communicate, be accountable, and take the action that results from growth and development.

Given the depth of a shared commitment, when things get rough or when we experience setbacks, a grounded commitment that we can practice and generate offers us this inquiry to live by: “What does my commitment want from me right now?

Three Dimensions of Leadership

To hold commitment in this way requires leadership. The authors of Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations offer a three-dimensional view of leadership to cultivate learning communities. These three dimensions include leaders as Designers, Teachers, and Stewards.

Leaders as Designers

This first dimension of leadership for a learning community involves “leader as designer.” This speaks to becoming a context-creator. Conventional learning involves content, but members in a learning community learn to appreciate context as follows:

  1. Designers build a foundation of purpose and core values (governing ideas) to create future. This future is not certain, or even predictable. It is an opening leaders design with others from a possibility.
  2. Designers develop policies, strategies, and structures that translate governing ideas into action. Designers co-create a shared commitment through enrolling others into a future in each activity, goal, and process they engage.
  3. Designers develop learning methods and practices that involve coordinating action and collaborating on high-performing teams to achieve goals or to serve others. This practice translates both to working together optimally and belonging to a shared commitment.
  4. Designers shamelessly integrate learning into the organization, not seen merely as the latest fad, tactic, technique, or fix. Today, the idea of learning is analogous to how we viewed IT two decades ago. Back then, the MIS department was in the basement with technicians we called when we had a computer or software glitch. Now IT is central to operating “smart” businesses.

Like IT today, the notion of learning must be fundamental to what’s possible in the organization. It is an organizing principle, integrated into all elements of strategy and structure, culture and practices, supply chains and marketing plans. The possibility of an organization’s growth and direction depends on its capacity to learn to learn, and to learn together.

The challenges of the second dimension, “leader as teacher,” are best presented in two parts: The Challenge of Teaching and Leaders as Teachers.

The Challenge of Teaching

Becoming a teacher is perhaps the area where many executives stumble. I’ve discovered many reasons for this. Teaching is simply not a priority for those in the C-Suite; it is typically outsourced to Human Resources or to other off-site workshops or retreats.

Teaching is not seen as a pathway to leading or leadership. The business ethos has adopted an idiom: “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” This ethos diminishes the value of teaching as fundamental to “running a business.”

To become a teacher is to become a learner. In a learning community, teaching arises from learning. This requires dissolving our identities as “experts,” letting go of “knowing,” and cultivating deep listening that manifests in openness. Moments of silence, confusion, or irritation are all moments for learning that guide teaching and ultimately, leadership.

Many view the art and practice of teaching as an optional style or technique or consider learning organizations as yet another organizational design. They perceive these as enacting different policies or missions. This is akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Teaching requires practice, often without measurable or predictable results. Its effects can be hard to quantify, usually requiring an upfront investment. Initially, we even regress in performance until we build new capacity. Because it cannot be immediately measured nor predicted, it is frequently dismissed as “elective.”

Many executives and managers view leading this kind of organization from an “individual” role or perspective. Cultivating a learning organization requires focusing beyond any individual model of leadership. Indeed, it calls for servant leaders—team learners who cultivate service and commitment.

Leaders as teachers are required to reach beyond the hierarchal model where vision, information, and decisions are directed by, or funneled through, a single position or role.

Leaders as Teachers

After accepting the challenges of teaching, we can examine how to become that leader as teacher who cultivates team learning.

The art and practice of teaching and learning challenges us as individuals. It requires a team to support, guide, and experience the mutual understanding to create a learning culture. It invites members to support and challenge each other to new levels of awareness to increase capacity as follows:

Support people to achieve views of reality that are more accurate, insightful, and empowering.

Shift from a problem-solving model of learning to a possibility-inquiry mode that encourages us to live in questions rather than seek out answers.

Support people to think at the systemic structure. This includes surfacing the structures and practices we create that give rise to the patterns of behavior, or what we connect, and the events level, or what we habitually download (see diagram below).

      image credit: Northwest Earth Institute

Surface people’s mental models by challenging assumptions and beliefs to include worldviews (model of reality), frames of reference (points of view), and mindsets (orientations to reality).

Support learners through the challenges involved in “unlearning” to acknowledge and let go of outmoded perceptions. More subtly, this involves questioning and dissolving our conventional “normative” training that adopts a view of learning as problem-solving. As Peter Senge puts it:

The reactive stance in management is evident in the fixation on problem solving. Many managers think that management is problem solving. But problem solving is fundamentally different from creating. The problem solver tries to make something go away. A creator tries to bring something new into being.

To reiterate, leaders as teachers requires a grounded and accessible commitment, as distinguished above, to offset the fears and challenges we experience when confronted by the unknown.

A commitment to something larger than ourselves provides a larger context from which to view setbacks, frustrations, or struggles. We begin to reframe our setbacks from “something is wrong” that needs to be fixed to “something’s missing” inside of realizing a designated commitment or possibility.

Leader as Steward

Integrating the previous two dimensions—leaders as designers and as teachers—offers the humility, discipline, compassion, and possibility to support “leader as steward.”

The leader as steward is primarily responsible for both operationalizing and embodying the shared commitment, for deepening it, translating it daily, and cultivating it as a sustainable future.

The steward expands their commitment and responsibility for the vision—not as owned by the leader but as a shared-vision that lives in the community through its commitment. These trustees also manage this vision for the benefit of others.

Stewards are rare, yet if more leaders expressed stewardship in business and government, we would spend less time on individual gain and self-serving achievements and more time on care and concern about creating a sustainable future that serves peoples’ needs.

Having spent some time examining leaders as stewards, I suggest a previous blog on servant leadership and offer these books: Stewardship by Peter Block, and Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf. To begin the path of becoming a leader as teacher I offer The Courage to Teach and The Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer.

To begin . . .

Who we are as learners starts with the willingness to be beginners, to replace knowing with questioning, and to dissolve our identity as “experts.”

Learning occurs between a fear and a need. Only in a community can we accept the necessary challenges to grow beyond our assumptions, receive support to experiment, and learn the practices to sustain commitment.

A learning community is not a mere sentimental view of being human, although it often reveals that dimension. Designing this culture requires personal mastery and rigorous practices in areas of listening, focusing energies, developing patience, and seeing reality objectively.

Personal mastery also requires the willingness and openness to collaborate and serve on high-performing teams and to be held accountable in candid and clear communications. It is not something you possess—it is a practice, a lifelong discipline.

Who we are as leaders of a learning organization begins with our view of leaders as designers, teachers, and stewards. As a practice, these are the kind of questions that support the path to unlearning that creates the openness to learning together.

  1. Am I willing to suspend certainty to venture into the unknown?
  2. Am I willing to acknowledge my beliefs, discover the assumptions supporting them, and then question those assumptions?
  3. Finally, am I coachable? Will I try something new or different to discover what’s possible?

tony-zampella-headshot Tony Zampella is the learning specialist at Zampella Group, which serves Learning & Development Professionals. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of learning programs and contemplative practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His studies include the work of Martin Heidegger and ontological inquiry, Ken Wilber, and Integral theory, and Zen Buddhism and contemplative practices.


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 “In times of change, those who are prepared to learn will inherit the land, while those who think they already know will find themselves wonderfully equipped to face a world that no longer exists.”


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